Special Report

Putting Government First

In the California budget stalemate, public sector unions take precedence over programs for the poor.

By 1.19.09

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The idea that Democrats care more about the poor and the needy is an enduring American political stereotype -- and one of the party's most potent vote-getting tools. It's highly questionable whether Democrats' emphasis on government paternalism and a generous welfare state actually helps the downtrodden more than Republicans' recipe of economic growth and low taxes. But at least on a rhetorical basis, Democrats certainly do talk the most about the hurting.

This is why we saw Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards jousting over which Democratic presidential candidate had the best anti-poverty program, with Obama touting his plans for "an all-encompassing, all-hands-on-deck anti-poverty effort." On the brink of Obama's presidency, there is every reason to assume his intentions to broadly expand the scope, power and spending of the federal government will include plenty of goodies for poor and working-class Americans.

But in California, when it comes to the politics of compassion, the Democrats who dominate the politics of the nation's largest state have been exposed as utter frauds -- machine politicians beholden to public employee unions who barely bother to pose as protectors of the poor.

There have always been signs that this pose was a ruse. Even as the state went on a spending binge from 2002 to 2007, funding for social services and welfare programs barely kept up with inflation. This history of indifference prompted liberal groups to do end runs around the legislature twice since 1998, using initiatives to pass cigarette and income tax hikes to fund programs for children and the mentally ill, respectively.

But now the state's budget crisis has made Democrats' true priorities crystal-clear. The crisis has been exaggerated by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to try to soften up voters for tax hikes; the oft-heard estimate of a $42 billion deficit is based on the Sacramento fantasy that a reduction in future projected spending increases is a real-world, hard-dollar spending cut. But there is no question that the state spends an average of about $1.5 billion more a month than it takes in -- and that bankruptcy looms unless this imbalance is resolved.

Toward this end, Democratic leaders of the California Senate and Assembly agreed in closed-door negotiations with Schwarzenegger to cuts in virtually every social services, health and welfare program in the state. This was the governor's price for going along with proposed increases in sales, gas and income taxes; a sharp reduction in the dependent children income tax credit; and a new levy on oil production.

But the cooperation ended when Schwarzenegger took his everyone-must-share-the-pain thesis to its logical conclusion. To ease the state's cash crunch, he announced plans to have state employees take off two unpaid furlough days a month beginning Feb. 1.

Leading Democratic officeholders -- and several likely 2010 gubernatorial candidates, including Attorney General Jerry Brown -- immediately engaged in an impromptu contest to determine who could denounce the proposal with the most vigor. Treasurer Bill Lockyer was typical, expressing outrage that the governor would "impose such a hardship on the backs of our employees." Lockyer and other Democrats elected to statewide office said they would refuse to enforce the furlough plan with their own staffs.

Medical checkups for poor kids can be halved. Help for the developmentally disabled can be reduced. Job training for inner-city youths can be suspended. But when it comes to cutting pay or benefits for a highly compensated state work force, Democratic officeholders not only draw the line; they express horror at the very thought.

Their reductive priorities were on display yet again on last Friday. That's when state Controller John Chiang offered his alternative to Schwarzenegger's plan to fight the cash crunch: Beginning Feb. 1, he said he would withhold $3.7 billion in payments owed to Californians.

Headlines focused on the fact that this meant nearly $2 billion in state income tax refunds were being kept for now by the state. A look at the fine print, however, showed Chiang also intends to withhold $188 million in funds for the two main state programs helping blind people and ailing seniors.

What was that again about Democrats being the best friend of the disadvantaged?

What was that again about heartless Republicans?

In crisis, a crude political Darwinism now rules in California. This survival-of-the-fittest scrum has made more obvious than ever that Democrats in the state legislature aren't just allies of public employee unions. Instead, these lawmakers are best described as wholly owned union subsidiaries – people who see state government as a jobs program, not a means to provide services to the downtrodden or anyone else.

The poor and needy? They're helpful political props to be used and discarded as needed -- no more and no less.

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About the Author

Chris Reed is an editorial writer for the U-T San Diego newspaper, formerly the San Diego Union-Tribune.