Budget +55: "Robbed Blind"

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Photo: Governor's Office

You never can tell whether a ratcheting up of rhetoric in the annual budget impasse means the fight is escalating... or coming to an end.

Either way, things are getting ugly... just take today's assertion by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that public employees, via their pensions, are stealing precious dollars from those who need them the most.

"They're being robbed blind by the pensions of public employees," said Schwarzenegger.

The governor made that comment in the latest stop on his circuit of business groups during the impasse, at at event in Santa Barbara County to speak to the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce. As of this morning, the current impasse is the second longest since the governor took office in 2003 and the fourth longest in state history.

Schwarzenegger used much of the event to lament what he sees as excessive spending on public employees -- a topic which seems to have become the focal point of what he wants before signing a new budget into law. Today he reiterated the administration's demand for repeal of the 1999 law modifying employee pensions as a condition for agreeing to a budget.

But the governor is also attaching the pension debate to other anecdotes of government spending, all apparently in an attempt to show why a tax increase is such a bad idea. For example, Schwarzenegger repeated one of his new favorite stories, about the new Los Angeles school that cost $578 million to build (interestingly named for one of his wife's late uncles). Take the governor's description of the school's cafeteria. "Why does a school have to have a better commissary that is better than any restaurant in Los Angeles?," he asked.

From there, he lamented that schools can't contract out for things like janitors and landscaping. And then, he blasted the fact that security in California's courthouses must be provided by deputy sheriffs... and that the state still hires court stenographers.

"That's old fashioned," said Schwarzenegger about the stenographers, suggesting cameras and recording equipment would do just as well. He claimed that labor unions block such cost-saving measures. "You will see all of a sudden we will save hundreds of millions of dollars" if changes are made, he said.

Asked about the governor's rhetoric, specifically the "robbed blind" comment, spokesman Aaron McLear told Capitol reporters this morning that the governor simply believes such mandated costs translate into a "shortchanging" of other programs.

The math here is a bit tricky. Evaluating the rising costs of public employee pensions is one thing (and it's hard to deny the aggregate costs have been rising); but describing all the costs of the state workforce as 'crowding out' vital programs does somewhat miss that fact that those same employees are the ones who operate those programs and services.

Also tricky is Schwarzenegger's insistence, repeated again today, that all the easy fixes have been made in the past few years of budget crises. "There are no low hanging fruits or medium hanging fruits or high hanging fruits," Schwarzenegger told the Goleta group. "Now we are shaking the tree like crazy!"

But he then launched into the aforementioned list of lavish expenses as examples of "waste, fraud, and abuse." So wouldn't frivolous spending be, in fact, "low hanging fruit" when it comes to picking off the state's budget woes?

"I don't think so," said spokesman McLear, who said those kinds of things are, in fact, tough to eliminate.

On the other side of this budget fight, Democrats say that Schwarzenegger needs to decide just what it is that he wants.

"We need a governor that's ready to engage," said Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg on Monday. "He has to get to a point, I think, where he prioritizes and gets ready to close [a deal]."

Steinberg also seemed frustrated that Schwarzenegger isn't willing to meet them somewhere in the middle on the issue of spending cuts. "Until there is that compromise," he said, "this unfortunately is going to go on."

Again, are these the comments of everyone trying to stand firm in the public's eye before getting down to brass tacks in private? Or is this a sign that we're on the fast track to the impasse speeding through the final days of August... and into a very tense, and costly, September?

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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.
  • Rman

    Instead of making making movies and speeches all around the country why isn’t he working with legislators on a budget. You know it is easy for multi-billionaires like the Governor and Meg Whitman to attack state workers’ pensions which average around $26,000 a year. Good job.

  • cabudgetorout

    Please join the new facebook group entitled: California State Budget: Pass it or be voted out!
    Unconfirmed buzz is that legislators are waiting until after the November elections to pass a budget for fear of voter retaliation. Let’s do a preemptive strike and promise to not vote for any incumbents if they don’t pass a budget by Sept. 15th!

  • any

    your right dont vote unless they pass the calworks stage three