From Sacramento — There's a common complaint voiced by disgruntled Californians, especially political conservatives: Sacramento's spending is out of control. That's why the state still faces a hellish deficit.
And it's all the Democrats' fault. They run the place.
Never mind that:
• California governors possess enormous veto power over spending. And for 23 of the last 28 years, a Republican has occupied the governor's office.
• Voters have gone on their own spending sprees at the ballot box: bullet trains, stem cell research, after-school programs.
• Republican Texas is almost as deep in the red with its budget as is California.
• Even under the rosiest scenario, with Gov. Jerry Brown attaining an extension of temporary tax hikes, spending from the state general fund during the next fiscal year is slated to be 17.5% less than it was three years ago. Spending will have dropped $18 billion, from $103 billion to $85 billion. In fact, three years ago, the legislative analyst was forecasting a $125-billion general fund budget for 2011-12.
• General fund spending per $100 of Californians' personal income in the next fiscal year is projected to be the lowest ($5.05) since Ronald Reagan was governor. (Reagan had righted the sinking ship by raising taxes a record amount.)
No question, Democrats over the years have been guilty on multiple counts of budget bloating and check kiting.
But this week, trying to partly close a $26.6-billion deficit hole, they hope to pass a budget that cuts programs by $12.5 billion. And if you don't think most of these are real cuts, take a close look. But avert your eyes from the elderly poor, the disabled and sick welfare kids. Some sights aren't pleasant.
Health and human services — programs for people without financial political muscle — would take by far the sharpest whack, roughly $6 billion, in a budget approved by Democrats on a two-house conference committee. No Republican voted for the budget bill.
Democrats voted to:
• Reduce monthly SSI/SAP grants for seniors and the disabled to the federal minimum: $830, down from $845. That includes any Social Security they might be eligible for. Savings: $192 million. Two years ago, the grant was $907.
• Cut Cal WORKS (welfare) grants by 8%, to $638 from $694 for a family of three in a high-cost county. Savings: $300 million. In all, $1.1 billion is being slashed from Cal WORKS, including reducing the adult time limit for benefits from five years to four.
• Reduce Medi-Cal funding by $1.6 billion. This includes a 10% rate reduction for providers, already among the lowest-paid in the nation. Co-pays are to be required of patients, ranging from $5 for a doctor visit to $50 for emergency room care and $100 per day at a hospital (maximum $200). Also, there'll be no more money for over-the-counter cold medicine or for nutritional supplements unless the recipient is tube-fed.
"Two years ago we cut dental services for people on Medi-Cal," says Elizabeth Landsberg, lobbyist for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. "We won't pay to save teeth, only to pull them. Now for people who can't eat because they don't have teeth, we won't pay for nutrition they can ingest."
• Eliminate child care for most 11- and 12-year-old children of working welfare moms. Savings: $39 million.
"There was a good reason why Pete Wilson funded this [babysitting program] back in 1997," says Mike Herald, another poverty center lobbyist.
"Research showed that children left alone were more likely to get in trouble with the law. Wilson didn't do it because he was a soft-hearted liberal. He did it because it would be more expensive if we didn't do it. Pete had this one right."
There's a very long list. And you don't have to be a bleeding heart to cringe. Plenty of other cuts will affect the middle class, such as:
• Hits of $500 million to the University of California, $575 million to Cal State University and $400 million to community colleges. These most likely will lead to more student fee hikes.
• Docking state parks $11 million. Several will be closed.
• Pulling state support from county fairs, saving $30 million. That may finish off some smaller ones.
• Eliminating state subsidies for the Williamson Act, which provides property tax incentives to keep land in agriculture and other open space. Savings: $20 million.
• Cutting many state workers' take-home pay by 10%, saving $308 million. Last year, other workers agreed to similar pay trims through collective bargaining, saving $72 million.
Of course, greedy state employees and their unions — not the global recession — are mostly to blame for the budget deficit, if you listen to the demagogues in denial.
Actually, you could fire every state worker paid out of the general fund — except for university employees, who aren't under the governor's control — and you'd save only around $9 billion.
But those state pensions are the budget killers, right? Wrong.
Right, they're too generous and should be scaled back. That's already happening for new hires and probably also will be for current employees. But wrong that pensions are eating up the state budget.
The general fund is paying a total of $3.5 billion into the state employee (CalPERS) and teachers (CalSTRS) retirement funds. It's pumping $1.4 billion into state retiree healthcare.
Scrub it all — the general fund payroll and retiree contributions — and there would still be a $12-billion-plus deficit.
Republicans haven't supported the Democrats' slashed budget. Nor have they offered any meaningful alternative, let alone suggested deeper gouges. Spending's running wild? Not even Republican lawmakers seem to believe that.