Shock waves from California’s May 19 special election have produced The Stuck Pig phenomenon and the Quiet as Church Mice phenomenon. The first affects all the constituencies that now realize that threatened budget cuts are about to become real. The second describes the legislators of the Democratic majority in Sacramento, struck dumb by the voters’ 2-to-1 rejection of five ballot measures intended to balance the state’s budget.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger went up and down the state before the election, warning that the sky would fall if the five measures didn’t pass. They didn’t and the sky is now falling. As many as 200 of 279 state parks may close. Social service programs will be scaled back. Several thousand state workers may be terminated and the rest subject to salary cuts and furloughs. The University of California, long used to setting high salary and perk standards for itself, may be reined in.
The reaction of affected constituencies has been to howl like stuck pigs. “It’s just insane,” said a Sierra Club officer of the state park closures. “We’re getting eviscerated,” said a county health director about the cuts in social services programs.
Meanwhile, in Sacramento, the legislative majority, so used to trumpeting its spending programs in order to please particular constituencies (especially public employee unions, collectively the state’s largest, most powerful special interest), has been stunned into silence. The voters handed them their heads by drubbing the ballot measures. This stew consisted of “temporary” tax increases, borrowing against future lottery revenue and shifting dedicated funds here and there. A sixth measure, prohibiting salary raises of elected officials in deficit years, passed by 70 percent.
The governor understood what the voters were saying. He immediately withdrew a request for a federal loan of $5 billion, saying that the order of the day was “Cuts, cuts, cuts.” Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein echoed this when she said that spending cuts were the only way to solve the $24 billion budget shortfall.
In time the howling of the stuck pigs will abate and the legislators will find their voices, but the sharp cuts will only solve the problem for the fiscal year that begins July 1, leaving in place the basic problem, which is that for years too many demands have been chasing too few dollars.
California relies heavily on income tax revenues and its rates are among the nation’s highest. There are inevitable boom and bust cycles. The boom revenues have been too tempting to the legislators, so they’ve haven’t saved to cover the busts.
The initiative process has added to the fiscal burden. Once considered a good example of democracy in action, in recent years it has been heavily overused. People with pet causes and fat wallets gather enough signatures to put on the ballot measures that are often ill-considered. They often lock in budgets for the pet causes, giving the legislature even less flexibility in allotting the state’s general fund.
The state is saddled with overly-generous contracts for state workers and, as demands for programs have been met with program expansion, the work force has expanded. The legislative majority has benefited from campaign contributions from the public employee unions. No wonder its members have been so silent. They hate to say “no” to their benefactors.
The legislature has been gerrymandered so incumbents of both parties are rendered nearly challenge-proof. There is a glimmer of hope here. In 2008, voters approved a new redistricting method, taking it away from the legislature and putting it in the hands of a non-partisan citizen commission. This will take effect after the 2010 census.
Meanwhile, the only thing that has kept the spendthrift legislative majority from ratcheting up taxes to feed its habit has been the intransigence of the minority to vote for such budgets. The state constitution requires a two-thirds vote for budget passage.
California’s structural problems could be corrected by a constitutional convention, the first since 1879. Some civic groups are calling for one. To work, however, it must have a narrow agenda and a truly disinterested membership.
In 1850 the new state adopted as its motto, “Eureka.” That’s Greek for “I have found it.” Early pioneers thought they had, indeed, found Eden. Latter-day Californians thought Eden would never end and that money would always be found to continue its pleasures. Today, however, there is no more “Eureka.”
(Mr. Hannaford was assistant to the governor and director of public affairs in the governor’s office when Ronald Reagan was governor of California.)
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