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COLUMN LEFT / TOM HAYDEN

The Budget Is on Time, but at What Cost? : Avoiding legislative gridlock is no virtue when the trade-offs are so self-serving.

July 04, 1993|TOM HAYDEN | State Sen. Tom Hayden, a Democrat, represents West Los Angeles and Santa Monica.

The good news is that California has a budget on time. The bad news is what's in it.

Ever since the Assembly forced a 64-day delay over school funding last year, the public demand has been that state government stop haggling and produce a budget by the mandated deadline of June 15.

A budget mirrors the priorities of those in power. By that standard, the 1993-94 budget is one that protects the interests of the incumbent Establishment against all cries and claims from truly disenfranchised Californians. In brief:

* The special-interest state with its lobbyist armies was completely protected. The Legislature even crushed a proposal to end the deductions that lobbyists themselves take for raiding the public treasury. Despite $21 billion in tax breaks in the budget, the only one taken off the books was the credit for renters.

* California's prison system is expanded to guard against the violent consequences of long-term poverty and despair. We now are second only to China in numbers behind bars. Order is expensive: One cell costs $80,000 to construct, plus $60,000 in debt service, and yearly operating costs per cell are $25,000. The cost of one prisoner equals that of educating nine community college students.

* College has been made less affordable. Permanent fees are up 22% at the University of California, 50% at the state university and 30% at community colleges. Overall, $500 million has been cut from higher education in three years. This is the only sector of state employment to have declined in the last decade.

* The poor will be poorer. Welfare recipients took a 2.7% cut on top of the 13% cut over the past two years. County relief recipients will be slashed. Low-paid public employees such as cafeteria workers will see a 47% pension cut, to $350 per month.

* Cities and counties will lose between $1.5 billion and $2.7 billion. One would never guess from this budget that there is an urban crisis, or that 27% of national unemployment since 1990 is in Los Angeles.

And here's the craziest irony: In spite of the budget's being billed as necessary to improve the "business climate," the day after it was signed, business leaders were complaining that it does nothing to break the recession. Extending the increased sales tax, for example, will hardly stimulate consumer demand.

Defenders of this downward spiral claim that there was no alternative. But they didn't even fight for one. Last year, Assembly Democrats fought so hard for the schools that, to avoid a repeat, all parties agreed early not even to scratch school funding this year.

This time the Democratic leadership could have insisted, for example, that tax loopholes on entertainment be closed instead of raising student fees again. They could have argued that it was impossible for Democrats to support the governor's entire budget without such reasonable concessions. But they chose not to challenge the status quo.

Pragmatism has become an end in itself. Getting a budget on time is an attempt to improve the public image of the present system. The original idealism of many legislators has become exhausted, replaced by a single party: Incumbent Survival. In this strange new world, Republicans vote for sales tax increases, Democrats vote against renters. Having expanded the prisons and shrunk the universities, both parties congratulate themselves on the "end of gridlock."

They have embraced timeliness at the expense of the future.

By the end of the budget week, many were simply numb. During the very last budget vote, to reduce pensions for state workers, a few members were watching a baseball game in the Senate lounge. One was asked to cast the decisive 27th vote, and wearily obliged. A moment later he returned to the lounge and said, "Well, I just cast the worst labor vote of my life. What's the score now?"

We're behind. Being on time doesn't change a thing.

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