We Work Hard for No Money

Just when
everything seemed to be going so well, the budget legislative analyst’s
office had to puncture our little balloon of joy. Well, not joy, unless
one’s overjoyed at tax increases and spending cuts, but hey, at least
something was punctured.

According to the Los Angeles Times,
“the plan that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and lawmakers approved last
month to fill California’s giant budget hole has already fallen out of
balance with a projected $8-billion shortfall, the Legislature’s
nonpartisan budget analyst said Friday.”

Lovely! So glad we know that
money we didn’t have was spent so…wait, $8 billion? You mean there’s
fully 20 percent of the original budget shortfall that we still haven’t dealt
with? My, what cheap “nonpartisan” compromises will we have to make to
get out of this one?

The drastic news has sent Schwarzenegger’s office careening back into Panic Mode, especially where the governor’s May special election idea is concerned. According to the Times,
“The dour projection
is likely to complicate Schwarzenegger’s effort to win voter approval
for a package of budget-related ballot measures scheduled for a special
election May 19.” That is, it might mean that the passage of the ballot
measures Schwarzenegger has proposed might be completely impossible, as
opposed to simply unlikely.

Larry Gerson, professor of political
science at San Jose State, speaks for us all when he points out that
the new insolvency will give opponents of the budget “a tremendous
argument” against it, as does Jon Coupal, President of the Howard
Jarvis Taxpayers’ Association. Coupal is quoted by the Times
as saying that “Their campaign was based on a shaky foundation as far
as credibility goes . . . and this isn’t going to make it any better.”

Amen. This shortfall may, however, have positive political
consequences for Schwarzenegger’s office. That is, they might force the governor to realize that, rather than wasting his time with
insignificant, counterproductive do-overs of actions that lost him tremendous political capital
in the past, what he ought to be doing is fixing the budget with good,
old-fashioned executive prerogative.

When a ship is sinking, there is
no vote on whether to release the lifeboats, and if Schwarzenegger’s
plan is really the solution to the budget crisis, then he ought to
release it regardless of the predispositions of California’s spending
happy electorate, who have already proven themselves to be
untrustworthy where money is concerned.

But, naturally, one could point out that this sort of approach has
its dangers, not least of all the fact that Schwarzenegger is not
omniscient — in fact, he’s often quite the opposite. If
Schwarzenegger assumes the sort of massive executive power needed to
steamroller all these measures past California’s people, that will in
turn set a precedent that other governors can assume that sort of
massive power in times of crisis, thus giving future governors a
political incentive to maximize their own power by dancing on the
precipice of crisis forever.

This would be true if Schwarzenegger were
avoiding an election in order to get his plan passed. However, this is
not Canada, where politicians can suspend elections
because they don’t like the results.

Schwarzenegger has absolutely no
positive obligation to call a special election and voluntarily put
himself in danger, especially at a time when stability in California’s
leadership is necessary, and decisiveness is mandated. Obviously,
Schwarzenegger is not the optimal leader to hold down this stability,
but at least he has some measure of understanding about how money ought
not to be spent, and can act decisively if necessary. One cannot say
the same for California’s electorate. $8 billion is a lot of money, so
let’s not waste anymore finding out just how much California’s people
don’t want to pay for it.