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Sacramento Finds Small Savings Count Now

March 23, 2004|Evan Halper | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Not long ago, it would have been hard to find much outrage in the Capitol over the state shelling out $125,000 to give away teddy bears at the DMV. Or $266,000 for lawmaker lunches and dinners. Or $800,000 to house four sexual predators in the Inland Empire.

Not any more. Sacramento is undergoing an attitude adjustment.

Once dismissive of rooting around for nickels and dimes, state legislators are overturning as many Capitol cushions as they can in a hunt for spare change.

Lawmakers, facing a projected $14-billion budget shortfall and a skeptical public, have a new theme -- each dollar counts.

"We want to make sure the money goes where it needs to go," said Assembly Budget Committee Vice Chairman Rick Keene (R-Chico).

So far it has been more talk than action. Legislative decisions on where to cut won't come until later this spring.

But there is reason to believe this year may be different. Lawmakers know that voters now expect more oversight. They want to erase the idea that reckless spending is the norm in Sacramento. And they want to make sure not to give Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger more opportunities to bash them.

The reasons are political, practical and even philosophical as tiny items and small sums are suddenly living large at the Capitol. Like the $36,000 the state spent on a Swedish wheelchair for a Medi-Cal recipient. Or the $275,000 spent to adorn a freeway sound wall with sculptures and carvings.

While lawmakers want taxpayers to know that they still plan to tackle the multibillion-dollar issues that caused shortfalls to soar, they also want the public to know they got the message from last fall's recall.

That election has changed the dynamics of negotiating a state budget. Schwarzenegger was elected on a platform of cleaning up government waste, stopping reckless spending and bringing an end to partisan bickering.

Democrats initially rejected the new governor's claims of waste and abuse of tax dollars as overblown. Now they realize there may be more to gained in working with him. Most Democrats are convinced that it will be necessary to raise taxes this year. But to win public support, they acknowledge that they must first cut the fat.

The reviews began with the governor's call for an audit of the state's books, which administration officials say will uncover substantial waste by the summer. Schwarzenegger later signed an executive order launching his California Performance Review initiative. He describes it as "a total review of government; its performance, its practices, and its costs."

Now, Assembly Democrats are holding their own special hearings into government waste -- exhaustive discussions in which lawmakers and bureaucrats talk into the afternoon about the smallest spending decisions. Senate Democrats are following suit.

"These legislators went through a period of time when they didn't care what the voters thought," said Republican political consultant Allan Hoffenblum. "Now they do. Even if they disagree. They don't want to come across as obstructionist against a governor trying to root out waste and inefficiencies."

A poll earlier this year by the Public Policy Institute of California revealed that two-thirds of voters believe state government spending could be cut without an impact on services. And a third of that group believes it could even be cut by 20%.

Some Democrats are wary. "There are angry voters who believe there is lots of government waste out there. No one would deny there isn't some," said Board of Equalization Chairwoman Carole Migden, a Democrat. "But it's hardly worth all the fancy titles of these commissions they are forming to find it."

No cost is too small for the scrutiny of these commissions. Not the $5 million the state pays in assistance to Filipino American veterans of World War II who are no longer living in California. Not the $2-million state webpage. And not the $400,000 the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection allegedly uses on a plane to shuttle its director around.

Anti-tax groups are still talking about the $175,000 the Department of Motor Vehicles spent on teddy bears it gave away in an effort to encourage Californians to participate in Census 2000.

Sometimes, state officials feel frustrated when questioned about the misuse of funds.

Sen. Jeff Denham (R-Salinas) recently released a list of state-owned properties he characterized as "ridiculous real estate ventures at a time when the state is in dire financial circumstances."

Some of the state agencies that owned the properties had an explanation. Yes, the state owns a massage parlor. But it acquired the property so it coud demolish it to build a freeway. And the Oakland golf course in the possession of Caltrans? It will soon be a park-and-ride lot.

Officials at the Department of Developmental Disabilities were puzzled over how a government report alleging that it unnecessarily paid for some private swimming lessons evolved into charges that it is building pools in people's homes.

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