As he enters his final year in office, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is as much a game-player as ever when it comes to the state budget.
It was only a few months ago that the governor attempted to hold state workers hostage to force legislators to compromise on a budget deal to address a mammoth deficit. He threatened to suspend the pay of many and cut back correctional officers to the minimum wage.
Eventually a budget was hammered out, but almost immediately new deficits loomed.
It's not the governor's fault that a lousy economy and a nasty habit of over-spending in Sacramento have created a fiscal nightmare in the state capital. But his so-called solutions are frequently mere gimmicks, the latest being his proposal for a voter initiative that would require at least 10 percent of the general fund to be spent on state universities, while no more than 7 percent could be spent on prisons.
"What does it say about a state that focuses more on prison uniforms than caps and gowns?" he asked in announcing the proposal.
Sounds good, but at a time when serious new directions in state spending need to be considered, Schwarzenegger's plan would actually exacerbate the problem. One reason the budget is such a mess is that voters have been approving initiatives that dictate certain spending priorities, which often conflict with other voter-approved initiatives.
It's admittedly hard to trust legislators with the entire budgeting process, but we have to quit tying their hands by legislating from the ballot box, and the governor is proposing to do still more of that.
He's also doing a bit of grandstanding, as if an 11th-hour concern about higher education might polish his legacy. Under his plan, the governor would have the authority to suspend these mandated spending levels during fiscal emergencies. Can anyone remember the last time the state budget situation wasn't a fiscal emergency?
While requiring a minimum 10 percent of the general fund be spent on universities is ill-advised, restricting spending on corrections to a maximum of 7 percent of the general fund is outright ludicrous. Right now prisons take about 10 percent of the general fund, and the governor is vague on how to cut that spending. In fact, his new proposal would bar the early release of prisoners.
We should be looking for more efficiencies at all levels of state government, but to write into law that our corrections system must spend less while performing at the same level of service could well make state prisons more dangerous places than they already are.
We all would like to live in a state where a higher priority can be placed on running great universities and a lower priority on incarcerating criminals. But California won't become such a place simply because voters approve one more hand-tying budget initiative.
It's harder than that, and the governor has just reminded us yet again that his bag of tricks contains only simple-minded proposals seeking the easy ways out.