The Politics of Reform

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Reform (ri form'), noun.
1. The improvement of what is wrong, corrupt, or unsatisfactory. [Webster's Dictionary]
2. A proposal whose merit depends on your political persuasion [Dictionary of Common Sense, never published... but in demand]

If the debate over California's gaping budget deficit is as it appears this second week of the new fiscal year, we're going to be spending a lot of time examining not only how much programmatic change certain programs need... but also how much of that change can happen quickly.

And give the credit or criticism for this being front and center to Governor Schwarzenegger, who has now focused virtually all of his public pronouncements on the $26.3 billion debate to issues related to four government sectors: public employee pensions, in-home care for the disabled, health care for the poor, and welfare assistance.

It's these four areas, says Schwarzenegger, where reform is needed that will save valuable state dollars.

As definition #2 above makes clear (okay, okay, it's my own definition), "reform" has become a politically subjective term. Because it denotes anything that is "good," it also means that such a thing cannot be "bad." In other words... if you're against a certain proposal, then surely you're opposed to "reform."

Well, maybe. Maybe not.

This morning, the governor summoned the press to a meeting he was holding with district attorneys from around California on the issue of fraud in the In Home Supportive Services program. And he claimed that there's no government program with more "fraud and waste and abuse" than IHSS.

Schwarznegger said that if one assumes there's 10% fraud in IHSS, "that's four to five hundred million dollars." The governor said that saving that money would provide cash for other worthwhile programs. "We've got to go and make sure that the taxpayers know that their money is spent wisely," he said.

The governor's proposed changes (click here for the document from his office) include fingerprinting and background checks. These, plus proposals for a scaling back of benefits, would save $380 million by July 2010, according to figures from his budget office. He also highlighted several areas in a recent op-ed published by the Los Angeles Times.

Critics, however, accuse Schwarzenegger of overplaying the issue and say he's overestimating the savings that can be achieved just by combating fraud.

"We need to focus on the dollars," said Assembly Speaker Karen Bass in a briefing for reporters this morning. "I do believe he's completely overstating (the issue) and making IHSS some huge part of the budget, when it's actually 1.5% of the state budget," she said. Democrats subsequently released a different analysis of the governor's comments on program reforms -- including his call for reform of the pension system, the welfare-to-work program CalWORKs and beyond. Speaker Bass said the issue of fraud is important, but that the dollar amounts don't match up to the $3 billion in additional savings needed after last week's budget deadline expired.

No one would argue that reforms aren't needed when government programs go awry; but the debate now seems stuck on how much money is at stake... and whether opposition to "reform" ideas on the table is based on politics or principle.

And until the issue is resolved or set aside, the state continues to bleed money... some estimates say as much as $25 million every day.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new California Politics & Government Desk. He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades, serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and most recently as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. In 2014, he was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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