The Corner

California Faces Its Day of Fiscal Reckoning

I know — I heard it on NPR. On my way to work this morning, I heard this “heartbreaking” story about the state of California’s budget. It started with Schwarzenegger’s speech to a joint session of the legislature (a rare event) where he said: “We are running out of excuses and we have run out of time,” and, “The people have run out of patience.”

The governor has proposed cutting as many as 5,000 state jobs, and perhaps thousands more as budget reductions cascade down to schools and local governments. Also, he would cut state spending on education by $3 billion to help close the budget gap. So the story proceeded to show how the state would have to cancel classes, fire instructors, cut class days, and shorten the school year. We heard the testimonies of school principals talking about the thousands of teachers they had to lay off already, overcrowded classrooms and termination of summer schools. We heard testimonies of eighth-graders who needed to go to summer school to make up for their grades and who had no idea what would happened to them. A social worker told this terrible story of a mother and a daughter both mentally ill who were rescued by her agency without which they might have died. The story asked: How many more people in this situation won’t be rescued because of the cuts?

In his speech, Schwarzenegger said that although he despises hurting school children and firefighters and Alzheimer’s patients, the state has no choice.

Of course, the story didn’t ask why the state should be running out of cash since, in the last five years, its budget has ballooned from $100 billion to $145 billion. And it’s not because it’s offering more services for that money.

It also failed to mention that California has the nation’s highest-paid teachers. As George Will wrote a few weeks ago:

California teachers — the nation’s highest-paid, with salaries about 25 percent above the national average — are emblematic of the grip that government employees unions have on the state, where 57 percent of government workers are unionized (the national average is 37 percent).

Also, the story didn’t mention all the programs that could be cut before resorting to putting elderly and mentally ill patients in the streets. For instance, to Schwarzenegger’s credit, he did ask that California first eliminated the many high-paying posts on the state Integrated Waste Management Board and other panels laden with former legislators. He also rightfully suggested privatizing the state’s golf courses and parks. What happened to that? How about museums and opera houses? There are by no means a priority.

And how about leasing California’s toll roads? Indiana has done it. In 2006, Gov. Mitch Daniels negotiated a lease for its toll road with the same Spanish-Australian consortium that leased the Chicago Skyway from the city of Chicago. The lease of the Indiana Toll Road is scheduled took effect on July 1, 2006. The $4 billion generated by this lease are being used for various transportation projects around the state. I bet California could do the same.

Finally, as Reason Magazine’s Matt Welch wrote here:

Do you know how many 5,000 state jobs are? A whopping 2 percent of the state work force, maximum. If that’s “annihilating,” how on earth would you characterize a 3 percent cut? As genocide?

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