So much courage, so few solutions

March 22, 2010

When people ask why I moved to Sacramento to write about California’s notoriously dysfunctional government, I say that in the next two or three years, the government here is likely to (figuratively) crash and burn, and as a journalist, I want a front-row seat for the action.

While my seat is more honestly high up in the bleachers, I’ve yet to be surprised by the amount of problems waiting to be covered. But I am surprised —- shocked, actually —- at the degree to which elected officials here are busy congratulating themselves about all the hard choices they must make. Most of the legislators seem to be, quite frankly, legends in their own minds —- not just in the minds of the special interest groups that serve as their funders and enablers.

After Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s final State of the State speech in early January, he and Democratic Senate President Darrell Steinberg wallowed in self-congratulation, despite the obvious inabilities to even balance the budget. But I’ve learned that such delusional mutual congratulation is not the aberration, but the norm.

The funniest recent example: The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum last week bestowed its John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award to four California legislative leaders who attempted to fix the state’s never-ending budget problem by embracing a budget that would have massively increased taxes on Californians up and down the economic ladder.

Granted, the JFK library is in Boston, but its press release quoting Caroline Kennedy (cousin of Schwarzenegger’s wife, Maria Shriver) captured the self-congratulatory tone common in Sacramento: “Faced with the most difficult choices and a budget crisis of unprecedented magnitude, these legislative leaders had the courage to negotiate a compromise that they felt was in the public’s best interest. They did so knowing they would suffer the wrath of their constituents, powerful interest groups and their own party members.”

As one might explain on Twitter, OMG!!!!

The award recipients were state Sen. Dave Cogdill and Assemblyman Mike Villines, both Republicans, and Sen. Darrell Steinberg and Assemblywoman Karen Bass, both Democrats.

The two Republicans were ousted from their leadership roles for violating the party’s stance against tax increases, so perhaps that could be described in some ways as showing a bit of courage, although I would never use the word “courage” to describe doing the wrong thing. California has a dreadfully high tax rate and its government is awash in waste, yet Cogdill and Villines thought it better to take more money from the people who work hard and pay the bills than to challenge their allies in the state bureaucracies.

And it’s not clear how courageous it was for the two Democrats to endorse such increases, given that the state’s Democratic Party is committed to few things other than raising taxes in order to pay for a state government that spends more than it takes in.

The JFK Center’s press release described the disastrous aftermath of the budget deal. The budget referendum they supported went, as required, to the voters, who soundly rejected it. The state “began issuing high-interest IOUs to vendors in lieu of payment. In 2010, California’s budget problems go largely unresolved. The Pew Center on the States has ranked California dead last among the 50 states on fiscal health.”

As a CalWatchdog blog post put it, “Last year four brave ‘legislative leaders’ stood up and signed a budget deal that everyone hated and was ultimately trashed by the voters so it didn’t really fix anything, and now our state government remains about $20 billion in the hole and the economy still sucks like a Hoover upright. And for that we are honoring those four ‘legislative leaders.'”

Ah, but this gets back to my observation. No elected officials here are interested in genuinely tough choices. They like to give vainglorious speeches and pat each other on the back while talking about all their courage and tough-mindedness. I watched Anthony Adams of Hesperia, another tax-supporting Republican, use the word courage to describe his own vote. He dodged a recall effort and announced that he won’t seek re-election, so at least he has a story to tell himself and his grandkids to justify his unconscionable budget vote.

For her part, former Speaker Bass gave new meaning to the word courage when, as the Los Angeles Times reported, “In one of her last acts as speaker of the state Assembly, Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) quietly doled out 10 percent pay raises and promotions to 20 of her staff members.” She did this against a backdrop of furloughs and budget deficits. But if one defines courage as merely doing something that will anger many people, as the JFK folks seem to do, then Bass had courage.

And the new Speaker John A. Perez has courage, too, in case you were worried about a courage deficit during this change of power. The Sacramento Bee reported last week that Perez “handed out pay increases or promotions totaling nearly $132,000 per year the day he was sworn in this month, including a $65,000 raise to his chief of staff.”

If you or I presided over a corporate budget (or family checkbook, for that matter) that was so deeply in debt and riddled with waste and abuse that the creditors were breathing down our neck, we would be filled with a certain amount of embarrassment or even shame. We wouldn’t be buying ourselves a new car and then championing our courage for only buying a Mercedes rather than a Bentley.

A Columbia University study from last year found that California’s voters are more likely than voters in most other states to get the policies that they say they want. So we can’t entirely blame legislators for the sorry fiscal situation in state government. We get what we vote for. But let’s at least not accept the delusion that anything truly courageous is going on in Sacramento.

–Steven Greenhut

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  1. EastBayLarry
    EastBayLarry 22 March, 2010, 20:21

    The ‘courage’ is in the fact that they can lie to their constituents, claiming that their policies are ‘for the good of all Californians’ while shamelessly robbing the tax payers for the benefit of their friends, (and themselves).

    I know that there are honest, hardworking politicians in this state and this country, but they have been shouted down for decades.

    The majority of voters in this state accept the claims of the politicians and the endless ‘infomercials’ sponsored by whatever special interest and never give a moments thought to the impossibility and illogic of the claims.

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  2. Dr. Bruce R. Weber
    Dr. Bruce R. Weber 27 March, 2010, 07:48

    I am in the process of reading Steven Greenhut’s book and congratulate him on the excellent job he is doing in his reporting of what has been going on as a result of the pension problems. His most recent article on the City of Vallejo notes that a judge has decreed that union contracts can be rescinded as a result of bankruptcy.

    As I understand it, California, as a state, does not have a bankruptcy option; only receivership. When California’s bubble finally bursts and it goes into receivership, is there much of a chance that its unions contracts for pension funds et al can also be voided? Crony capitalism is so widespread it seems that union dollars will flow to the judiciary in order keep the status quo, even for these state pensions, when California goes into receivership.

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