Budget +9: Rhetorical Flourishes

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Perhaps it should be stipulated at the outset of this posting that virtually all elected officials frame data points in a way that helps make their case. Creative license in the world of politics knows no party or ideology... it just comes with the territory.

Still, there was something about this weekend's radio/internet address by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that caught my attention, a statement that seemed just a little hard to believe: that inaction by the Legislature has actually grown the size of California's deficit over the last six months by $3 billion.

Really?

The above video, posted Friday afternoon as the latest installment of Schwarzenegger's 'California Report' (not to be confused with a certain statewide radio newscast), seems to reflect a slightly new tactic in the governor's strategy of resolving this summer's budget impasse: upsize the blame while simultaneously suggesting we should downsize government.

The comment that got me thinking comes within the first 25 seconds.

"Since January," says Schwarzenegger, "the legislators' inaction has already added nearly $3 billion to the deficit."

So that means that the now $19 billion problem was only $16 billion when the governor unveiled his January spending plan, right? Wrong. The January 2010 budget plan submitted by Schwarzenegger pegged the state's shortfall at $19.9 billion; four months later, he recalculated the problem to be $19.1 billion.

Yes, according to the governor's own documents... the state's deficit actually shrank by $800 million since January, rather than growing by $3 billion due to "inaction" on the part of the Legislature.

The number the governor is referring to (one which his communications director pointed out to me when I tweeted on this statement Friday afternoon) is on page 3 of his administration's May budget revision summary. Here, it says that the Legislature's failure to act on his January recommendations has led to $2.8 billion (close enough) of those options no longer being achievable. In other words, the Legislature took a pass on almost $3 billion of his deficit-fixing ideas... which meant they'd have to find almost $3 billion in fixes somewhere else.

Disagreeing on proposed solutions is not the same thing as actually growing the size of the problem -- yet that's exactly what Schwarzenegger's weekly video accuses the Legislature of doing.

The governor's new video also jumps on another PR push that began this week by his team: putting a daily dollar figure on the impasse ($52 million), a number that's not actually reflective of daily red ink. But even here, Schwarzenegger is upsizing the rhetoric -- claiming that "every additional day of inaction costs taxpayers another $52 million." Another $52 million? On top of the existing deficit?

If the governor's math is on point (i.e., every day is making the hole deeper), the state's deficit would now stand at almost $22.5 billion, and by the end of July, we'd be facing a gap of almost $24 billion. But that's not what's happening; instead, what the inaction is really doing is forcing different tough choices to be made... not forcing a larger dollar value of tough choices to be made.

Schwarzenegger's advisers will probably think I make too big a deal of this, but it's an important distinction. Budget deficits are not cash deficits; they reflect the total amount short that state government will come up once the entire 12 month fiscal year is over. We're only nine days in. The hole is not getting deeper, the Legislature just can't decide which tools it wants to use to climb out... and they're not going to use several of the ones Schwarzenegger suggested.

But we still have no real sense of which tools are ultimately going to be chosen. Democrats continue to insist, publicly and privately, on some kind of additional tax revenues -- which the governor, in his video, again rejects. Meantime, it's still a little unclear what bottom line legislative leaders are using.

In his own radio address today, Assembly Speaker John Perez makes the following comment: "Legislative Democrats have unveiled a unified proposal that reflects the core values of Californians, focuses on job creation and begins closing our long-term structural deficit."

But in truth, the proposal seems to consist only of some big picture points; a lot of the details -- including where all the money comes from and how a supposedly 'modified' version of the Assembly Dems' controversial Wall Street borrowing plan fits in, for example -- have not been "unveiled." Until they are, the Democratic rhetoric may help keep their own forces unified... but it doesn't seem poised to win over recalcitrant Republicans.

So we'll all keep watching and waiting. The problem may not be getting worse for now; but the consequences of not solving the problem most definitely will get worse, if this summer's standoff goes on too long.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia 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. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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