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On balance, a bad budget

When yacht owners are preferred over the aged and homeless, the bottom line is we've sunk too low.

August 28, 2007

In the end, it still could have been a good state budget, despite its unnecessary two-month tardiness. It could have been a fair, though painful, step toward fiscal sanity. It could have been a lesson in balancing social and fiscal responsibility. It could have been forward-looking and smart. But it's not.

We take it as a given that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had to use his veto pen to slash more than $700 million to eliminate the budget's operational deficit and to pick up the two necessary Republican votes in the state Senate. Lean is good. But some cuts seem cruel and gratuitous jabs at California's most vulnerable.

A series of Times stories in 2005 revealed one shocking instance after another of conservators -- appointed by courts to protect the elderly and infirm -- using their positions of trust to instead exploit their often defenseless wards. The darkest possible nightmare for many aging Californians was coming true as they lost their property and their freedom to professional guardians with virtually unsupervised power. A series of legislative hearings forced Sacramento to confront the issue, and Schwarzenegger with great fanfare signed into law reforms to allow the courts to finally oversee the conservatorship industry.

The cost? A modest $17.4 million. But the governor last week zeroed out every penny of it. He left senior citizens to abide another year of abuse and told them, in effect, to wait to see whether they rate higher on his priority list next year.

Schwarzenegger also chose to cut a highly regarded program to lift mentally ill people from skid row. The $54.9 million allowed more than 30 counties, including Los Angeles, to help the homeless stabilize instead of returning them to the street or to jail. The governor acknowledged the program's value but told counties they should just backfill with money from Proposition 63 -- a ballot measure that by its terms bars counties from using its revenue for backfill.

Are the state's finances so tight that it was necessary to leave seniors and the homeless unprotected? No. While crafting this year's budget, the Legislature restored a loophole that allows owners of yachts, airplanes and recreational vehicles to avoid what amounts to $45 million a year in sales taxes. In the twisted logic of Sacramento, serving rich yachters is vital. Protecting California's most vulnerable is an unaffordable luxury.

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