The power (elite) diet

It’s time for the big spenders in the Legislature to push away from the table

Senate President Pro Tem John Burton refused to let Republicans make a closed-door presentation about Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget plan.

Senate President Pro Tem John Burton refused to let Republicans make a closed-door presentation about Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget plan.

Photo By Larry Dalton

As I perused news coverage of the Legislature’s December 5 failure to agree with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and give us voters a say at the ballot on clamping a strict spending limit on the legislators, it dawned on me that the media need to remember just who they’re dealing with.

And I don’t mean the new guy in town. I mean the Legislature, the 120 people who got a 17-percent approval rating from voters this year.

The Democrats refused to let voters have a say on Schwarzenegger’s proposed spending-cap constitutional amendment as well as on his $15 billion bond to refinance fat debts incurred as a result of decisions made by former Governor Gray Davis and the way-too-liberal Democrats who control Sacramento.

Schwarzenegger set a spending cap of roughly $72 billion a year—close to what the state makes now in revenues. That cap would mean state government would have to start living on what it takes in by immediately cutting chronic, imbedded overspending.

But allow voters to decide such a meaty issue? Let voters mull over Schwarzenegger’s idea that the Legislature can increase spending beyond the $72 billion only at the same rate as California’s population and per-capita income increase?

This proved to be too much for the Democrats on December 5. But we shall see if they rethink things now that angry phone calls are coming in from the public.

If voters approve a true spending cap in California, it would mean the first serious, structural belt-tightening in years. We had a true cap once, called the “Gann limit,” but slick politicians talked voters into wiping out most Gann-limit safeguards by approving exceptions.

Right now, as we speak, the Legislature burns through far more cash than it brings in. But, as the state executive, Schwarzenegger can’t stop this by fiat. The cash-blowing activities can be stopped only by voters at the ballot box or, far less likely, by Democrats who control the Legislature and who tragically have few moderates or economically aware folks among them.

Where does the money go? We’re not supposed to discuss that in polite company—even the governor is horribly torn about this—but California is one of the biggest welfare states around. In the 1960s, we spent 20 percent of the state budget on infrastructure things like road building and public works. Today, virtually every penny of that has been shifted to welfare, where the state pours its funds into free food, free health care, free relief checks and so on. Less than 1 percent of your taxes go to infrastructure anymore.

The California Legislature does not believe in helping the disadvantaged catch their own fish, by, say, financing big public-works projects that put people to work. Instead, as the saying goes, California just hands out fish—tens of billions of dollars’ worth.

When a permanent new welfare program is created, the public has no clue what entitlement means. It means that no matter how many people sign up, the program cannot be cut back. There is no cost-containment. It is “caseload”-driven. If California is broke, or if we taxpayers make far smaller tax payments because our paychecks get slashed, the caseload programs keep their maws open wide.

The public has no idea this goes on.

When a typically vague public-opinion poll asks Californians if they support health care for children, everybody says, “Of course!”

The governor still has a slim chance of working out an 11th-hour deal with the Democrats to place a spending cap on the March ballot. But Schwarzenegger will have to cut this deal with the same Democrats who are trying to add new entitlement programs, not cut the caseload-driven insanity.

My personal favorite, approved this past session and signed by Davis, allows Californians who have lost jobs and run out of cash to get food stamps without having to sell their luxury cars.

Before this, we taxpayers were asked to buy food for others only if people who were down on their luck traded down to cheaper cars and used those proceeds to pay for food before coming to taxpayers for food handouts.

But now, you can own a Jaguar. As long as you have no cash for food, we’ll buy it for you. And get this—your household can own as many Jaguars as it likes. And food stamps are an “entitlement,” so this is an open-ended, no-spending-caps program.

That’s how we got into this mess. The Legislature approves a program, telling the public it is budgeted for, say, $200 million. The daily news media fail to do their core job of explaining that the new program actually has no spending limits. Soon, the $200 million program costs $1 billion.

This is why, on December 5, the Democrats proposed putting on the March ballot a loosey-goosey spending cap. The real spending cap the governor insisted upon—limited by the population-growth rate combined with the income-growth rate of Californians—was far too real.

Moreover, while the governor’s spending base would be set at $72 billion annually, the Dems wanted to start at $83 billion— billions more than Sacramento has spent even in its most gluttonous year.

I wish I could say that my own Democratic Party, which I joined in college when the Democrats believed in something real, pushes caseload programs today in order to help the poor—but I can’t. Poverty has remained virtually unchanged in the face of three decades of caseload politics and massive infusions of free help. Mothers passed poverty on to children and then grandchildren in an unending cycle. As a Los Angeles journalist, I wrote about this issue for years.

It was the Republican Congress that forced welfare reform upon the politicians in Washington and put millions of poor mothers to work. It was former Democratic President Bill Clinton, a centrist who rejected his party’s failed liberal policies, who signed the Republican reforms now lauded even by many of the poor.

California’s Legislature is oblivious. Fundamentally, the left, which, sadly, controls the California Democratic Party right now, does not believe in the self-sufficiency/self-pride argument that centrist Democrats embrace.

So, I watch with fascination as very liberal guys like Senate President Pro Tem John Burton and Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson act out a virtual replay of their disastrous behavior from a year ago.

Last year, Davis beseeched the Legislature to come back for a special session in December to consider immediate cuts in the face of a “sudden” $35 billion deficit. Davis warned the Legislature that he would propose his own package of deep cuts by January 10, 2003, and said that if the legislators failed to approve his cuts by late January, the state would spiral further into debt.

It’s downright scary to remember what happened after Christmas last year, because history does repeat itself. When Davis detailed his $10 billion in cuts on January 10, Republican legislators backed Davis’ crash diet. But the Democratic majority utterly ignored Davis and convened working groups to find new ways to tax us instead.

As January, February and March slipped by, the Legislature failed to cut even a penny while $20 million per day in unrealized cuts blew out the door.

By late March, Democrats had proposed some 100 bills to dump $28 billion in new taxes on Californians.

Meanwhile, powerful California state-employee unions easily put a halt to serious cuts, such as $470 million in Davis-proposed trims from state employment rolls. So, the state continued hiring 3,000 workers per month to its groaning rolls of about 225,000.

In April, The Fresno Bee revealed that Wesson, so eager to tax us to death, was spending more than $350,000 in public monies on unneeded political aides. Embarrassed, Wesson fired a guy he was paying more than $8,000 monthly to advise him on “rodeo and racetrack” issues—except there were no such serious issues facing California.

There was little surprise when Democratic Controller Steve Westly announced in April that the state suddenly needed nearly $11 billion in quickie loans to stay afloat. (Those $10.7 billion in bonds, approved long ago by Davis, make up most of the $15 billion bond Schwarzenegger wants Californians to approve at the ballot box, because a serious legal challenge is pending against the way Davis and the Legislature approved the bonds: without the voters.)

Westly backs the governor, but Burton and Wesson are complaining that the governor should have met with them more often instead of going to San Diego, Bakersfield, Tracy and the Inland Empire to ask the public to back his plan.

In fact, Burton and Wesson never did seriously negotiate. Burton, for example, refused to let the Republicans, led by Senator Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga, make a closed-door presentation of details of the Republican proposal that spelled out Schwarzenegger’s plan. I heard Burton barking at a Democratic legislator in a hallway on December 5, not realizing a journalist was present: “We aren’t going to approve that fucking plan, so what fucking difference does it matter where it goes on any fucking agenda?”

If an 11th-hour agreement is reached after press time, it will be because Schwarzenegger demonstrated—at malls filled with screaming supporters—that he was serious about talking directly to the very people with whom the power elite in Sacramento have lost touch.