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CAPITOL JOURNAL

California's GOP lawmakers should do the budget math

To avoid raising taxes and still balance the books in Sacramento, you'd have to virtually shut down state government.

February 16, 2009|GEORGE SKELTON

FROM SACRAMENTO — The math seems pretty simple. But apparently it's too rigorous for many Republican politicians.

To avoid raising taxes and still balance the books in Sacramento, you'd have to virtually shut down state government.

Some politicians are in denial. Some are demagoguing. Some are just ducking. Scared.

The scared are rather pathetic. Here are elected officeholders who represent 475,000 people in an average Assembly district -- 950,000 in a Senate district -- and they cower before conservative bloggers, radio talk entertainers and activists of a declining party.

It's Republican dogma in the Capitol that to vote for a tax increase is "career-ending." Even if true -- and there's evidence both ways -- so what?

These are folks, after all, who sermonize against making politics a career, publicly pretend to worship term limits and preach the virtues of private enterprise. You'd think they'd be eager to return to the private sector. Yet, they're afraid to risk losing out on their next political job.

Scared is a symptom of term limits, when legislators aren't around long enough to gather political self-confidence and standing; of gerrymandering that bunches like-minded voters into single districts to protect seats for a party and punishes bipartisanship (Proposition 11, passed in November, should change that starting in 2012), and closed primaries that deny access to a broad ideological base of voters. But all that's for another day. Back to the math.

The numbers kept flashing in my mind during the weekend as the Legislature -- at least most of it -- labored to win over three Republican votes in each house so it could attain the two-thirds majority needed to prevent state government from falling irretrievably into the dumpster.

The basics: The state has a projected $41-billion deficit through June 30, 2010. It's almost out of cash. Bills are not getting paid. Tax refunds aren't being mailed. Construction work is stopped. Bonds can't be sold.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the four legislative leaders finally agreed last week on a package of $15.1 billion in spending reductions, $14.4 billion in tax increases and $11.4 billion in borrowing.

That's close to what Californians want -- a mix. A statewide survey last month by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that 56% of voters favor both spending cuts and tax increases to solve what 82% of the electorate considers "a big problem."

The problem for GOP politicians, however, is that 52% of Republicans favor eradicating the red ink "mostly through spending cuts."

But the numbers don't add up. The Legislature's two Republican leaders -- Assemblyman Mike Villines of Clovis and Sen. Dave Cogdill of Modesto -- came to that realization in December as they dug through the budget books. They also knew that even if it were possible to avoid tax hikes, their GOP colleagues didn't have the stomach for the kinds of slashing that would be needed in school, healthcare and prison programs.

"The only alternative now," Villines said Saturday, "is to literally go insolvent and over the cliff. And many of us believe that is irresponsible and giving up our constitutional responsibilities."

Ardent anti-taxers say the governor and Legislature should simply whack the "bloated" bureaucracy by 10%. Even 20% if need be. Lay off and cut pay. Pare benefits too. After all, private companies are doing it.

Well, you could fire every state worker under the governor's control and the savings wouldn't come close to balancing the budget.

According to the state budget document, there is the equivalent of 205,000 full-time jobs controlled by the governor. There actually are more workers than that because some are part-time. Do the math based on 16 months, since that's now the time frame of the projected deficit, assuming a balanced-budget package could be implemented by March 1.

You could lay off all those state workers -- rid yourself of their pay and benefits -- and save only $24.4 billion.

Meanwhile, you would have dumped 160,000 convicted felons onto the streets because all the prisons were closed after the guards and wardens were fired. There'd be no Highway Patrol because all the officers were canned. State parks would be closed because there were no fee-collectors or rangers.

Truth is the savings wouldn't even add up to $24.4 billion because some of those employees are paid out of small special funds that are self-sustaining. It's the big general fund that suffers the deficit. But let's say the books could be shuffled mysteriously and all that savings realized. You'd still need a lot more.

OK, lose the Legislature, you say. It's good for nothing. But it's also not worth much when you're trying to fill that size deficit hole. The Legislature's 16-month cost is roughly $400 million.

So now one branch of government is critically wounded, and another is dead. And we're still $16 billion short of enough savings.

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