FROM SACRAMENTO — Normally it's called the "May Revise." But what Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will unveil today is a "get out of jail free" card for himself and legislators.
First the background:
Each May, California's governor revises his January budget proposal for the fiscal year starting July 1. The spending plan is updated to reflect the state's latest revenue take, particularly the April income tax returns. This year's returns were the sorriest since the Great Depression.
Schwarzenegger had planned to wait until after next Tuesday's special election to revamp his proposal -- much of it already enacted in February -- because nearly $6 billion in budget money is riding on the results.
But with polls showing all the key propositions headed for defeat, Schwarzenegger decided to spell out the potential upshot to voters now.
He'll produce two budget versions. One will assume that the ballot props he and the Legislature proposed somehow pass. The other will assume that they are rejected.
If they pass, there'll be a need for draconian spending cuts totaling only $15.4 billion -- on top of $16 billion already slashed in February. If the props fail, the level of cutting will be practically unfathomable -- $21.3 billion.
To put those numbers in perspective, we're looking at total general fund spending of from $85 billion to $90 billion.
So what does Schwarzenegger's roll-out today mean politically?
By detailing the hideous options that will remain if the budget props fail, the governor is shielding state policy makers from blame for the ugly results.
They'll be freed -- or at least should be -- from the consequences of their inevitably unpopular actions.
Voters can ignore the governor or refuse to believe him. They can dismiss his warnings as phony scare tactics, as the propositions' opponents contend. But the choice is theirs.
The day afterward, if the props are rejected, Capitol politicians will be free to butcher programs, fire public employees, even raise "fees" with majority votes. They'll have a voter mandate to do just about anything they want.
What about the voters' "message?" After all, this is being promoted by opponents as a "Send 'em a message!" election.
And what message would that be? Whatever the missive, it won't be coherent. It'll be loud gibberish:
Quit raising taxes!
Stop cutting services!
Live within your means!
No spending controls!
All these conflicting messages are being shouted by the odd coalition of anti-tax conservatives and pro-spending liberals opposed to the ballot package's linchpin, Proposition 1A. It would impose permanent spending controls, which the left detests, while triggering a two-year, $16-billion extension of temporary tax increases, which the right won't tolerate.
My guess is the loudest, most sustained noise is coming from the tax haters, inspired by small organizations whose existence depends on widespread fear of the tax bogeyman. Schwarzenegger used to spread the horror stories himself.
But the spending lobby also is in full throat, led by some public employee unions (California Federation of Teachers, Service Employees International Union) and cottage industries that have grown up around programs for kids under age 5 and the homeless mentally ill.
Both programs were created by previous ballot-box budgeting through initiatives and have stashes of money they currently don't need. Props. 1D and 1E would seize some of their surpluses for the general fund.
The big ticket item on the ballot for current budget-balancing is Prop. 1C, which would authorize expansion of the lottery and borrowing $5 billion against future profits. Some outfits opposed to Prop. 1A do support 1C. But it's virtually meaningless.
Prop. 1A is the focal point, the symbol for the entire package. How it fares likely will determine the fates of Props. 1B through 1E. Even if voters approve 1B, which ultimately would restore $9.3 billion in budget cuts for schools, it can't take effect unless 1A also passes.
So Schwarzenegger's not-so-subtle message to voters today will be something like this:
Don't pack the Capitol steps protesting thousands of teacher layoffs, ballooning class sizes and a shorter school year if the ballot props fail. Schools will be cut again regardless of the election outcome, but they'll be crushed if the props go down and Sacramento needs to find an additional $6 billion. You're on notice. Don't blame us.
State employee layoffs are a virtual certainty. But there'll be a lot more if the props lose. Go talk to the unions that opposed 1A.
And if you're a conservative who fears felons even worse than taxes, don't be stunned when tens of thousands of prisoners are freed because the state can't afford to keep them locked up.
There'll be fewer firefighting camps -- and less state aid for rural law enforcement.
In fact, you can expect the state to forcibly "borrow" billions from local governments, thus causing severe cuts in many city and country programs.
And, oh yes, the elderly poor, blind and disabled -- welfare moms and children's healthcare? They'll take the biggest hits, as usual. Some services will be eliminated. Others will be reduced to the bare minimum, even below what's permitted by federal law. Federal "waivers" will be sought. Blame the libs who fought the Prop. 1A spending controls.
Voters are forewarned. Killing the props will license the governor and lawmakers to slash and burn while safely possessing a "get out of jail free" card. What they must not do again, however, is use Monopoly money to "balance" the budget.