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Positive Spin on Budget Cuts

March 22, 2004

Although critics long have cried that billions in "waste, fraud and abuse" could be found in a snap in California's $100-billion budget -- a claim that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger embraced in his recall campaign -- reality has prevailed already for state legislators. They're finding there just aren't any magic savings. Instead, they face lots of tough, detailed work on California finances. Although this task may be daunting and will be a major struggle, there's promise already in a series of hearings -- continuing this week -- on ways to cut the budget.

Darrell Steinberg, the Sacramento Democrat who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee, last week got the governor's finance wizards and the bureaucrats who run departments into a room and immediately launched into one of the most complex and contentious subjects: state aid to the developmentally disabled, including the retarded, the autistic and those with cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Steinberg set a goal of at least $100 million saved out of the department's budget of $3.4 billion. Department officials said the state qualified for $50 million or more in federal funds but had not gone after the money because it didn't "have the resources," mostly meaning enough workers. Steinberg said the state might have to spend more money in some cases to save money.

Other savings would come from setting statewide standards for purchasing services and supplies, an area for potential abuse. What distinguished this legislative hearing was its lack of acrimony and partisan conflict -- qualities for which lawmakers, in the recall, had earned public scorn. Indeed, Steinberg has set an admirable tone, avoiding such words as "waste and fraud," while insisting he is willing to dig for "efficiencies."

The Steinberg approach is promising because it reduces both the political rhetoric and the implication that beneficiaries of state programs like those that serve the disabled may be cheats or living high on the dole. Maintaining collaborative discussion will be difficult, but all parties will benefit if it can be done.

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