Vetoes Mark End to (Another) Ugly Budget

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Photo: Governor's Office

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has wielded the power of his office, and his line item veto, over California's budget for the last time, a dysfunctional and deficit-plagued process that shaped not only his rise to the state's highest office but one that may also follow him into the history books.

The state's longest budget drama may have felt like it ended just as the sun was rising this morning over the state Capitol -- it was an all night legislative battle to get the package ratified -- but it actually ended later Friday afternoon, when Schwarzenegger put his signature to the document and wielded his line-item veto power to cut another $1.1 billion in spending.

California gives its governor more power than many states when it comes to using the so-called blue pencil to unilaterally strike spending. And for the final few years of Schwarzenegger's tenure, the vetoes have been a final punch in his bloody brawls with the Legislature. The governor, both this year and before, has insisted that legislators send him a budget with a reserve of unused cash that's large enough to make a noticeable difference in the deficit that always seems right around the corner. Legislative leaders, on the other hand, have sometimes denounced Schwarzenegger's spending cuts as both arbitrary and punitive.

Count this year in that category, too.

When Schwarzenegger told reporters early Friday morning that his general fund vetoes would amount to $963 million (the above total includes special funds), everyone knew the cuts would be controversial.

And the final list (which you can find beginning on page 27 of a PDF budget summary) were just that. More than 59% of the vetoes are in health and human services programs, with most of the rest in K-12 education.

One of the biggest vetoes was almost $133 million provided through county programs for disabled students and mental health services for special education students. Schwarzenegger's veto said he's also suspending the mandate for such programs on local officials. But legislative Democrats quickly said that the governor had overstepped his powers, that the state constitution allows the Legislature, not the chief executive, to suspend local mandates.

Also notable was his veto of $256 million in child care assistance for working poor families. "This action is necessary to help bring ongoing expenditures in line with existing resources and to build a prudent reserve," wrote Schwarzenegger in his veto message.

Elsewhere, the governor cut funding for child welfare services by about $80 million; local public health infectious disease programs by almost $60 million; $55 million in local AIDS assistance programs; $10 million from primary and rural health programs; and more than $100 million in mass transit funding.

In some cases, Schwarzenegger defended his vetoes by pointing out that he'd left what appeared to be sizable funding; in others, he argued the costs would be covered elsewhere (federal health reform for rural health, bond funds for mass transit). And in some cases, he simply reverted back to the 'times are tough' veto statement mentioned earlier.

But the reaction was swift and, in many cases for the termed-out governor, personal.

"Governor Schwarzenegger's final actions in office were directed at making life more difficult for California's working parents and the poorest, sickest and most elderly Californians," said Assembly Speaker John Perez in an emailed statement.

"His legacy has been cemented," reads a statement from the County Welfare Directors Association of California. "A legacy of hypocrisy and the stain of devastating the lives of children and families in need."

"The governor has shown his true colors," said a statement from Assemblymember Jim Beall (D-San Jose), who chairs the Assembly Committee on Human Services. "He has proven again – and for posterity – that he is not a friend of the weak, the poor, or disabled children, and never has been."

For Democrats, the vetoes are an especially bitter pill, as their budget strategy this summer seemed to be to circle the wagons around health and human services programs, especially the subsidized child care services that now have had their funding cut back.

For Schwarzenegger, the budget he signed into law seems at first blush to be a mixed bag on the legacy front. If his staff's projections on the future savings of the budget's public employee pensions pans out, the fiscal help could be notable. The same goes if voters decide to augment the state's existing rainy day reserve fund through a March 2012 ballot measure.

The governor came into office promising not only independent auditing to help uncover the waste, but an end to -- in his words -- "crazy deficit spending" that was unsustainable for California. The budget that's now in the books, as with every budget, certainly balances on paper. But if the many assumptions in it don't come true, the next governor will likely arrive in Sacramento in a matter of weeks with the same sense of disbelief Schwarzenegger expressed in 2003... and with some of the same systemic problems standing in the way of wholesale reform.

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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.
  • zurda

    “Also notable was his veto of $256 million in child care assistance for working poor families. “This action is necessary to help bring ongoing expenditures in line with existing resources and to build a prudent reserve,” wrote Schwarzenegger in his veto message”

    Really? If his child was lying in a hospital bed needing surgery would he refuse to pay because he needed to put the available money in a savings account for the future? Nonsense. Of course he would not. It’s trite but also true that our children are our future. It’s just that when it’s someone else’s child it’s not such a big deal to him.

    Schwarzenegger seems to have had it in for the success stories of CalWORKS from the beginning. Year after year he tried to end the subsidies to mostly single parents who have turned their lives around and are doing what Schwarzenegger’s supporters claim they don’t want to do: WORK! The subsidy works. There’s cost-sharing on a sliding scale. As income increases, so does the required payment. Like every other working person, these people want to be able to continue working and to earn increases in their pay – which eventually leads to an end to the subsidy. Instead those who don’t live near available relatives will get a choice: Keep your job and put your children at risk or quit your job to take care of the children. Of course, the second option is just another way to put their children at risk since people who qualify for post-welfare subsidies are unlikely to be able to survive on unemployment. (I believe unavailability of affordable child care is a valid reason for receiving UI). It is not the case that many of these parents will get back on CalWORKS. Contrary to the rhetoric of those who consider the poor lower than vermin, there is a lifetime limit on CalWORKS payments. And what of the child care providers and workers who will lose their livelihoods as a result of this short-sighted veto?

    While the lives of millions of Californians hung in the balance, our elected representatives finally came to an agreement. The “Big 5” came to an agreement. Child care subsidies would continue. What Schwarzenegger has done is not only a broken promise to people who have worked hard and done what was asked of them. It’s a deliberate knife in the back to our elected representatives and to every Californian who thinks we have elections for a reason. Not surprising given that in his first ever State of the State message Schwarzenegger promised that everyone would sacrifice, no one would be spared. He’s had time to deliver on that promise, but he failed to do so. The only good news is that this was his last chance to destroy lives as Governor.