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California Legislature: Where cost-cutting plans go to die

May 02, 2009|Patrick McGreevy and Eric Bailey

SACRAMENTO — Despite the swelling state deficit, the Legislature this week dumped several proposals that would have saved taxpayers millions of dollars.

Killed in committee were plans to freeze salaries for top-paid state workers; to abolish a waste board stacked with handsomely paid former legislators; to scale back a $185-million project for a new lottery headquarters; and to generate up to $2 billion by selling surplus property.

Republicans pitched most of the plans to help deal with the deficit -- which is expected to hit $8 billion by summer -- but even some from moderate Democrats were rejected.

"If the Legislature can't even make this, the easiest of cuts," said the author of the waste board proposal, Sen. Jeff Denham (R-Atwater), "it's going to be a long summer."

Senate Minority Leader Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta) criticized the ruling Democrats' "hardheadedness."

Democrats said some of the Republican bills would have jeopardized important programs for minimal savings.

"Wholesale deregulation -- anti-environment, anti-worker, anti-consumer bills -- smack of the Bush-era policies the nation and Californians in particular overwhelmingly rejected in November," said Shannon Murphy, spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles).

Some of the GOP ideas, such as selling the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, were just "goofy," said Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood).

State officials have projected the midyear budget shortfall as a result of the recession. And if voters reject the budget-related ballot measures in the May 19 special election, the deficit could top $14 billion.

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger supported SB 44 to abolish the Integrated Waste Management Board and save up to $3 million a year, Denham said. The Senate Environmental Quality Committee rejected it Monday on a party-line vote.

The board has been criticized as a way station for retired lawmakers. Among its members are former legislators Sheila Kuehl, John Laird and Carole Migden; each is paid $132,000 a year.

"A vote against this is a vote against a streamlined, more cost-effective and more efficient manner of running government and meeting our environmental goals," Schwarzenegger said.

Committee Chairman Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) said the board had helped local agencies meet the state's goal of diverting 50% of waste from landfills and develop new markets for recycling.

Another GOP proposal, to eliminate compensation for 12 state commissions that pay big salaries and meet once or twice a month, would have saved $7 million a year, according to its author, Sen. Tony Strickland (R-Thousand Oaks). But SB 685 died Tuesday in a deadlocked Senate Government Organization Committee.

Wright, the committee's chairman, said that commissioners worked many more days than they meet and that they earn their pay.

But Strickland called it "irresponsible" to hand out "massive paychecks" to part-time commissioners at a time of teacher layoffs and government furloughs.

In the Assembly, Chino Hills Republican Curt Hagman argued that a proposal to spend $185 million on a state lottery headquarters, including two office towers to be rented out, should be scaled back to a $40-million renovation of the lottery's existing building.

But the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee disagreed, voting down his bill to do so, AB 662.

Opponents of his plan said backing away from the larger project would send a negative message amid efforts to borrow against future lottery revenue.

One of the measures on the special election ballot would authorize such borrowing.

Sen. John J. Benoit (R-Palm Desert) proposed to require random drug tests for welfare recipients -- and to eliminate payments to those who didn't complete a drug treatment program. The Senate Committee on Human Services rejected his SB 384 along party lines.

Denham, author of the waste board bill, had another proposal blocked too: SB 28, which would have raised up to $2 billion by selling San Quentin State Prison to a developer. Senate Public Safety Committee Chairman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) shelved the bill, saying it could add to prison overcrowding.

Republicans were not the only ones to see their cost-saving ideas shot down.

Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Canada Flintridge) proposed AB 53 to freeze salary increases and overtime until 2012 for state employees earning more than $150,000 -- saving at least $2.5 million and affecting 820 executives, he said.

But opponents on the Assembly Appropriations Committee said freezing pay would make it hard to recruit and retain executives.

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patrick.mcgreevy@ latimes.com

eric.bailey@latimes.com

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