Fiddling while California burns money

The leaders in the Legislature are finding frivolous things to do, while the budget deficit inflates

Illustration By David Wagner

I have this weird daydream that investigators in some future California will discover high levels of lead in the peach and green designer paint in the state Senate and Assembly chambers in Sacramento, at last giving baffled historians the answer to the mysterious behavior exhibited by legislative leaders in the budget crisis of 2003.

Then, we’d understand the refusal of Senate leader John Burton and Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson to do their jobs (the sick puppies had brain damage).

If you hang around Sacramento, you cannot tell that California has an astronomical $26 billion to $35 billion deficit or that things have devolved so horribly that California Controller Steve Westly warns we need $11 billion in quickie loans—more than any other state in history—just for operating expenses.

The California Legislature is the drunk engineer of a slow-motion train wreck, but it’s acting like it’s business as usual.

The Legislature doled out another 2,300 state jobs in February (God knows how many more in March—the numbers aren’t in). Despite the crisis, they’ve kept to their three-day workweek and refused to make 2003 budget cuts beyond a teensy $3.3 billion. After attacking President George W. Bush for weeks, left-leaning legislators who dominate the statehouse are peering at California polls showing a 70-percent to 75-percent pro-war public and then shamelessly recasting themselves as hawks fighting for homeland security—by raising our taxes.

“They aren’t going to come to a budget agreement until September,” predicted Hoover Institution research fellow Bill Whalen, formerly with Pete Wilson’s administration. “The budget crisis doesn’t get much newspaper play, it’s not on TV or radio, and we have a little thing called a war. They feel absolutely no pressure to cut spending.”

Huey and Dewey, Wesson and Burton, are squarely to blame.

Wesson declared that the income and other taxes paid to state coffers by April 15 and reported to the Legislature in May “will give us a clearer view of what the problem is,” so there’s no reason to cut any further. (Reason No. 1: The state is hemorrhaging millions of dollars a week by failing to cut now.)

Wesson is great at teaching by poor example. Sacramento has been agog over a story that broke in The Fresno Bee revealing that Wesson spent more than $350,000 in public monies to hire indefensibly bizarre political aides to serve him in Saddam splendor.

Wesson abruptly unhired all these aides a few days ago under intense public pressure. But why on earth did Wesson think he could pull it off?

My favorite hire was former Republican legislator Mike Briggs, who sided with Democrats on key votes last year. Briggs, in what to me seemed clearly a payback, was being paid more than $8,000 monthly to advise Wesson on “rodeo and racetrack” issues facing California.

But oops! There are no such issues facing California. Briggs mumbled to a newspaper recently that he’s advised Wesson “on farming.”

“Absolutely incredible,” said Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia, in whose district Wesson set up one of his “aide’s” new offices. “I don’t think the speaker knows we’re in a budget crisis.”

Burton is no better. He’s the Official Sleepwalker, allowing the Senate to wallow in a swamp of pointless bills as legislators propose detailed programs for which there is no money. But egged on by Burton, legislators don’t get it and keep asking for programs, five months into the train wreck.

“Burton has confided in some people that he has no idea what to do, for the first time in his career,” one sympathetic lobbyist told me at a Gray Davis speech.

Poor baby. Get moving is my suggestion.

The miracle is that 17 percent of the public still approves of the way the Legislature is doing its job, according to a Los Angeles Times poll.

Last December, Davis told these dunces that they had until late January to make $10 billion in current-year cuts, or the state would go deeper into debt, with spending unabated.

But the Democrats, who hold a big majority of seats in Sacramento, are too close to special-interest groups who will back them during the next elections. As a result, groups like the state employee unions easily put a halt to $470 million in trims from the state payroll.

Davis tried to give the Democrats a political out. He suggested they approve a law allowing the governor to make midyear budget cuts without the Legislature. Governors had that power in California until the law was changed in the early 1980s.

But the Democrats refused to accept this political out, which ironically has the backing of every Republican in the Legislature.

Ill-advisedly, the Legislature has created a mound of 100-plus bills to charge Californians $28 billion in extra taxes and fees—precisely the amount needed to close the budget deficit without serious cuts. Oakland’s Senator Don Perata says to tax diapers, Chula Vista Assemblyman Juan Vargas says to charge us extra for electricity, Concord’s Senator Tom Torlakson says we should up the gas tax, and Assemblyman Mark Leno of San Francisco says let cities tax us without the two-thirds vote required now.

The truth is that this Legislature is more politically extreme and out of touch with real people than any group of California legislators in memory. It simply will not do what’s necessary to avert this slow-motion train wreck.

As proof, I point to the bustle of activity within the Legislature leading up to this week’s spring break—activity having absolutely nothing to do with resolving the budget crisis. It’s been a silly season.

I watched poor Darrell Steinberg, an affable Sacramento-based assemblyman who chairs the Appropriations Committee, hear out legislators who acted oblivious to the budget crisis, as their fantastical bills were shelved for lack of money.

Just as frightening are the bills that are still alive.

Consider clueless San Diego Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe. She has proposed a law allowing teachers’ unions to use the public schools for political organizing, political lobbying and political campaigning.

Right now, thank God, it is illegal for unions to use school grounds, school facilities, school equipment and school time to push any political measure or political candidate. Our children need that sort of nonsense like they need their textbooks burned.

But the Assembly seriously debated this for 35 minutes on April 10, right before the Democrats gave a 42-30 backing to Kehoe’s stupid plot to turn the schools into rent-free political headquarters for partisan political factions.

If our snoozing California media bothered to cover such tidbits, most Californians would be outraged.

And what of Los Angeles Assemblyman Paul Koretz, who’s been very busy trying to end the declawing of cats? It’s a beastly practice, yes—but fix it when you’ve fixed the budget, Paul.

And look at San Leandro’s Ellen Corbett, who is strenuously pushing a bill to outlaw the selling of “unweaned birds.”

Corbett has a powerful job overseeing the Judiciary Committee, yet on April 10, she was on the Assembly floor trying hard to stop the selling of unweaned birds.

It would be a lovely issue during a lax political year. But right now, I humbly suggest Corbett get her butt moving regarding the scandal over thousands of small businesses in California who were nearly destroyed by nuisance lawsuits filed by high-pressure lawyers using a loophole in California’s unfair business-practice codes.

The scandal, victimizing mostly immigrant-owned businesses, was exposed by talk-show hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou at KFI in Los Angeles. It involves Beverly Hills law firm Trevor Group, which sued 2,000 shops over tiny violations—such as filling out a state form wrong—and then successfully demanded small fortunes to drop the suits.

Trevor Group is being pursued by the California attorney general as a result of the exposé, but the Assembly failed to fix the flawed law that encourages such courtroom shakedowns. It’s the sort of law that hurts business in California, which in turn fuels the deficit.

KFI Producer Ray Lopez said, “They just don’t care. Give zero credit to the Legislature. We got the law firm to drop the 2,000 lawsuits only with help from the attorney general, state bar and district attorney. The Assembly was paid off by trial lawyers who want those loopholes to remain.”

See how much easier it is to write laws about unweaned birds?

Another doozy is a law proposed by Jenny Oropeza, chairwoman of the Assembly Budget Committee, who, during debate, seems not to grasp the basics of the budget crisis.

Oropeza proposes that 10 schools in California be inspected and judged for how well their teachers demonstrate “cultural competency”—the left’s phrase for hewing to politically correct views acceptable to the left in the classroom.

Using information extracted from the ill-fated 10 schools that are inspected, Oropeza proposes to retrain California teachers in how to properly genuflect toward ethnic identity groups—a crowd that just happened to help elect Oropeza to office.

Joe Hicks, a civil-rights expert and vice president of the Los Angeles-based Community Advocates, a human-relations organization, responded this way: “Oooh, the hair stands up on my neck when I hear things like this. With all the problems facing the state, for anyone to be judging teachers in cultural competency—whatever that means—is beyond ridiculousness and really outrageous.”

I am starting to depress myself. What is Sacramento praying will happen after the May tax-revenue reports come in? Do lawmakers think the stock market is going to skyrocket back to 12,000? That taxpayers are going to staple an extra $500 check to their payments to help out?

No. Our leaders are waiting for the crisis to hit Code Red, the point at which something snaps. And when that happens, you can be sure that Burton and Wesson will present a nice, fat tax package designed with you in mind.