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Schwarzenegger's 'ugly' budget

The governor's proposal goes after human services, but is that really the best approach?

May 18, 2010

For Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's final act, or at least the opening scene of his final act, he has proposed pulling the rug and then the floor itself from under millions of ill, addicted, unemployed and underskilled Californians. In a year in which he had few options, he chose the worst one.

It's the worst not merely because the result would be shockingly inhumane, eliminating basic safety-net services at precisely the time they are most needed and unraveling the state's historic commitment to help the less fortunate. Schwarzenegger, to his credit, is not one of those who dismiss human services as an unaffordable luxury or a misuse of public money. He warned that his plan to eliminate the $19.1-billion budget gap would be "ugly." He wasn't kidding.

But even if the state were to decide this year to become mean as well as lean, the governor's budget is a bad one because it indulges in buck-passing and, in one of Schwarzenegger's favorite phrases, kicking the can down the road.

For example, the state's welfare-to-work program is not merely a big favor that some members of society do for others when they can afford it. Unemployable parents and other adults cost the state a lot of money when they end up on the street. We as a state have discovered that it's a better use of our money to encourage welfare recipients to pick up the basic skills that we failed to provide them, or they failed to learn, in public schools, and to use those skills to find and keep a job. If welfare-to-work is eliminated, California is not just being cruel, it is being foolish, because the costs of an unemployable adult population will continue to mount and the bill will be presented again and again in future budgets, although perhaps disguised as county police, jail and court costs.

We have discovered as well that it's a better investment in our future to provide basic healthcare to children when they are young, if their parents can't afford it, than to bear the later and higher costs of young students who are hindered in school by unaddressed medical problems. It doesn't require actually caring about children to see that failing to take adequate care of kids in past years has exacerbated our budget crisis now. The same is true of support for seniors, the mentally ill and the drug-addicted.

It does taxpayers little good to erase this year's burden by increasing next year's. It does them no good at all to balance the state budget only to increase the burden on counties. They may be different tax bills, but they are delivered to the same taxpayers.

Yet the fact remains that we're out of money. Schwarzenegger, despite his bad choice, deserves some sympathy because Democrats, service providers, advocates and the courts have rejected his earlier attempts to make deep but less drastic human services cuts. Many of his proposed efficiencies and reforms have been clumsy, or poorly thought out, or transparent attempts to undermine union power rather than to improve aid. But lawmakers and advocates seldom counter with useful ideas of their own. They demand the status quo. This year, that just won't be possible.

Perhaps we can give Schwarzenegger the benefit of the doubt by taking this worst possible budget proposal as an attempt to force from lawmakers and the courts something other than a simple "no" to lesser program cutbacks. As they get down to business, all parties will serve the state best if they start by acknowledging that human services are a necessary part of a solvent, sustainable, humane California.

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