LOS ANGELES - It is a California conceit that the culture begins on the Pacific and spreads not so slowly toward the Atlantic. Showbiz governors, governments of costly dreams, freeways, homosexuality as fashion, Valley Girl talk (like, you know), and once upon a time, even right-wing politics, more or less originated here.
The latest trend is watching politicians panic when governments start to melt down, and the bills for blowing the public’s money on extravagances finally come due.
Jerry Brown, the new Democratic governor once known as “Governor Moonbeam,” is demonstrating what happens when economic consistency is imposed on spendthrift politicians. Not government thrift, nor aversion to raising taxes. It’s great entertainment, if not exactly model government.
The governor and the legislature are sitting among the ruins of a balanced budget enacted as required by state law.
The law requires legislators to enact the budget and send it to the governor by June 15 every year or be docked $400 a day until they get it right.
Mr. Brown declared that the budget the legislature enacted, put together with a little spit, a drop or two of sweat and a handful of pixie dust, was a budget worthy of only a veto. He said the budget the legislature submitted was taped together with “legally questionably maneuvers, costly borrowing and unrealistic savings.”
But some of the Democrats who comprise a majority of the legislature thought not to worry. The state controller would never hold up their paychecks because he was, after all, another Democrat.
Not so fast, said John Chiang, the Democratic controller, and a committed numbers guy. He looked over lawmakers’ math and said the budget the legislature submitted wasn’t balanced after all: “The numbers simply did not add up.”
The state would spend $1.85 billion more than it would collect. Not even close, and no cigar. He won a hearty round of applause from the public, and legislators were outraged. This made it all even more delicious, particularly for Californians with a taste and appreciation for chutzpah.
“John Chiang just wants to sit there and beat up on kids,” cried Assemblyman Mike Gatto of Los Angeles. “I now have to explain to my wife and daughter why we won’t be able to pay our bills because a politician chose to grandstand at our expense.”
The leader of the Democratic majority in the Assembly agreed, and promised to employ the great American solution: a lawsuit.
“Chiang is now focused all the attention on himself so he’ll have the next political move to become governor,” he said. “Now it will require a lawsuit to educate him.” He argues the controller violated the separation of powers in violation of the state constitution.
The Democrats seem outraged not on behalf of their constituents, but by the effrontery (as they suppose) of someone expecting a legislator to do the work he’s paid to do.
Plumbers and electricians, farmers and garbage men – working men and women – understand that if they don’t perform the tasks they’re paid to do they can expect to be docked. Politicians, alas, become accustomed to a shallow learning curve.
The governor, no fan of lean government, wants to balance the budget with more taxes and extensions of taxes about to expire. He got within two Republican votes of achieving that during the legislative session, but his talks with the Republicans coughed, sputtered and died. He expects now to put the new taxes to a statewide referendum, perhaps this fall.
But his union allies, chief among them the teachers union angered by $150 million in cuts for education schemes, are reluctant to go to voters this year, preferring to try next year when Barack Obama, still popular in California though not nearly as popular as he once was, will pull more voters to the polls.
The dreaded “car tax” and an increased sales tax, enacted two years ago, expire next month. Those taxes cannot be “extended,” and must be legislated as new taxes. That would be a hard sell, with an election year approaching. So the politicians are looking to save nickels and dimes.
One state senator, Lonnie Hancock of Oakland, thinks he has found a novel source of savings. The state of California is spending $184 million a year to house and feed 714 prisoners on death row. California has executed “only” 13 prisoners since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1978.
Old age is the leading cause of death on death row, and Mr. Hancock argues that there’s no point in spending millions to keep people alive while it waits to kill them. This could be the beginning of another California trend.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.