The Governor’s Budget Non-strategy

Posted by Bobbi Murray on August 3, 2008

It wouldn’t be surprising to see non-Californians still do a double-take when the title “Governor” is applied to former on-screen cyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was admittedly a lot weirder at the beginning here for us, but we’re mostly over it out here, done with the “I’ll be back” jokes and calling him the Terminator.

Plus, I think all the Terminator references only encourage his macho-dog antics, like when he called Democratic legislators “girly men” a few years back. Mature!

Anyway, Schwarzenegger seems to be reinventing himself enough so people even call him moderate. It’s true he has broken with Bush on some issues, positioned himself as an environmentalist, opposed offshore drilling and promoted and signed a measure to sharply reduce California’s greenhouse gases emission.

But Thursday he did something pretty retro.

Schwarznegger added some new theatrics to California’s annual budget drama when signed an executive order that cuts 200,000 state workers’ salaries to $6.55 an hour — the federal minimum wage, not the $8.00 hourly California level — until the legislature approves a budget.

He also cut over 20,000 part-time jobs, trying, he said, to free up cash to cover California $15 billion shortfall.

Every summer in California we go through budget conniptions because the Golden State is one of three — THREE — states that require a two-thirds vote of the legislature to pass the budget. The other two are Rhode Island and Arkansas.

And every year California’s Republican minority ties it up because they want cuts and oppose raising new revenues through fees and taxes.

This, by the way, reflects the Governor’s position. He has advocated across-the-board cuts that would be devastating to health care and education, advocates say.

Meanwhile, a poll from SEIU shows that 65 percent of Republicans don’t object to fee increases if it means averting budget gridlock.

The budget is due every July 1, and when the impasse goes past that date, as it inevitably does, Medi-Cal payments don’t make their way to clinics, state-funded daycare gets plunged into chaos and other government programs suffer

The Governor’s solution this year? Punish state workers.

Like that’s going to get things moving. Cutting workers’ pay while they are already struggling in the present economy doesn’t solve anything. And it puts pressure on the wrong people, says Kent Wong, Director of the UCLA Labor Center.

“The big problem is that many of the Republicans that are committed to this collision course each year don’t mind when it shuts down the government, because they don’t like government,” he says. It’s just to extract whatever concessions they can, Wong says.

The state will restore back-pay when the budget passes, but bills come due on a monthly basis and paycheck-to-paycheck means just that.

Meanwhile, a legislative conference committee did reach a compromise budget — one that restores $1.8 billion to health and human services, according to SEIU, but the GOP-per “leadership” keeps stonewalling.

Schwarzenegger was appropriately solemn and apologized as he signed the pay-and-job-cutting order but forgive my niggling doubts about his complete sincerity, given his previous swipes at the public sector.

In 2004 he suspended a law that lowered the nurse-to-patient ratio in California hospitals and emergency rooms. The California Nurses Association dogged his appearances with rallies and picket lines, leading to his jeering comment that the nurses were angry because “I’m always kicking their butts.”

Such class and gravitas! A born statesman.

But sticks and stones — the CNA filed suit challenging the ratio change and won.

The Gov’s big-footed went on, annoying the unions further when he advocated privatizing the state pension fund. Cops and firefighters took it personally — it would have eliminated benefits for the survivors of those killed on the job.

And then Schwarzenegger reneged on a promise to restore $2 billion in education cuts and got the teachers angry at him.

So for most of 2005 the Governator had swarms of picketers from the three public sector unions turning up at every appearance, always kicking his butt, as it were.

Finally, the Schwarzenegger called a special election for November 2005 — a pricey indulgence, we might note — and championed two anti-public sector ballot initiatives.

One attacked teachers with a pretty crazy probation scheme, the other that sought to hamstring public sector unions by requiring individual members give written permission for their dues to be used for political action.

The unions raised a ton of money and defeated the measures. They were always kicking his butt.

Back to our present drama — check out the coverage of the local NBC affiliate and you will see gobs of unionist cheering on state controller John Chiang, who says the governor’s legal argument for being able to stick it to public workers is weak.

So Chiang won’t comply and plans to sign checks in the correct amount.

The report notes that California employees are payed monthly and were payed today and probably won’t have to sweat it until September 1.

But still sweating it. That’s where the theatrics come in — why put people through the agony?

Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton says the GOP Gov is sufficiently disinterested in his party brethren that he doesn’t meet up with the Repubs that are jamming up the works.

Skelton writes:

He has virtually no relationship with any Republican other than the two GOP leaders, and even those connections aren’t cozy. That’s unfortunate because the GOP governor needs at least some Republican votes — six in the Assembly, two in the Senate — to get any budget or tax increase passed.

So what we seem to have is some inchoate animus against unions and anyone who challenges his self-image. Anyway, hell of a way to govern the world’s seventh largest economy. (Estimates vary — google it yourself and see.)

Now, about that $15 billion deficit. Jean Ross of the indispensable California Budget Project, which advocates for fiscal policies that protect low and moderate income Californians, explains it this way in an op-ed piece:

Since 1993, California has enacted tax cuts — income tax cuts, corporate tax cuts, vehicle license fee cuts — that cost the state $12 billion a year. As a result, even in good economic times, the state’s tax system fails to raise enough to pay for current levels of state spending, most of it on education, health care and prisons.

Vehicle license fee cuts — hmm, isn’t that the “car tax,” the abolition of which was Schwarzenegger’s central campaign promise? (Answer: yes.)

Luckily, State Assembly Speaker Karen Bass knows a thing or two about real leadership, having built a powerful and effective grassroots group, the Community Coalition, before she ever thought of running for office. She knows you can’t solve the logjam in the middle of a budget crisis but is pretty determined it won’t happen again.

Bass plans to convene a bipartisan committee to figure a way to avert the brinksmanship that causes such chaos each year.

Wait, that’s like something a governor should do…

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