Reducing the pay of state workers to the federal hourly minimum wage of $7.25 until a state budget is adopted will help close California's $19.1-billion budget shortfall. Except that it won't. The supposed savings are a drop in the budget ocean and would have to be repaid anyway after the Legislature finally adopts and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger finally signs a balanced budget.
But the pay cut would at least punish the people responsible for the state's current condition. Except that it wouldn't. Beleaguered state employees can hardly be blamed for a bevy of programs mandated but not paid for by voter initiative, or by years of dysfunction in the Legislature, or by the current toxic political environment that makes a budget solution unlikely to surface until at least mid-August — a month and a half past the current deadline. Nor are workers responsible for the mortgage meltdown, the recession or California's tax system, which relies far too heavily on fluctuating Wall Street profits earned by wealthy residents and businesses.
At least, then, the public employee unions will learn their lesson from the reduction in their members' pay. Except that they won't. Unions have joined with other constituencies in pushing for unaffordable ballot measures, and some have used their clout with lawmakers to press for costly program expansions. They have a role in California's dysfunction. But they are hardly the sole driver of the state's ills, andbesides, labor is here for the long haul. Some unions have renegotiated pension contributions and benefits in response to the long-term budget crisis, in part out of a sense of responsibility and, yes, in part in response to the threat of more drastic pension overhauls at the polls. But they know their way around the courtroom — they have successfully blocked punitive tactics before — and there is little chance they would crumble in the face of delayed pay for their members.
And that pretty much undermines the argument that cutting workers' pay down to the minimum wage will apply righteous pressure to legislative Democrats, who receive the lion's share of labor contributions and are labor's primary supporters in Sacramento.
So why should we go through the whole charade? Why should we listen to Schwarzenegger's arguments that he's not really ordering a pay cut but rather just abiding by the laws that bind him as governor? Why should we pay any heed to Controller John Chiang's argument that his computers can't figure out how to produce minimum-wage checks, or to the governor's scolding that some past controller was able to do it?
We shouldn't. This isn't just an old movie; it's a boring one. It's a distraction. The state remains in crisis, and the whole minimum-wage gambit is just one more rote maneuver — although to workers, an especially and unnecessarily aggravating one — that does nothing to move the discussion toward a successful conclusion. Weary Californians are tired of these exercises. Get the budget done.