Steinberg no longer fights budget cuts

JAN. 24, 2011

By DAVE ROBERTS

Just a few months ago Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg excoriated then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s $1 billion budget cut for social services, calling it “misguided, cruel, unnecessary and preventable,” according to the Los Angeles Times. But at a town hall meeting on Saturday he defended Gov. Jerry Brown’s larger budget cuts for social services, which include $1.7 billion less for Medi‑Cal, $1.5 billion from the welfare‑to‑work program and $750 million from the Department of Developmental Services.

After several years of smoke-and-mirror budgeting in which he battled Schwarzenegger’s proposed cuts, Steinberg said it’s time to make the tough cuts needed to get the state’s fiscal house in order.

“We have been able to actually minimize the magnitude of the cuts over the last three years. And I say this with pride,” he said in the two-hour forum in a Sacramento library. “The public criticizes us, and understandably, for not balancing the budget. But I’m going to tell you that Governor Schwarzenegger, who I thought did some good things as governor and cared a great deal about California, but I was at odds with him on how to deal with the fiscal crisis. He was proposing draconian cuts, and was not really willing to confront the issues of restructuring and realignment and revenue.

“As the leader in the Senate, I had one goal during the $42 billion budget crisis, and the $26 billion budget crisis and then the $19 billion budget crisis — and that was to save as much public investment as possible. To make sure that the cuts to education were as minimal as possible. To make sure that the cuts to the safety net, health care, child welfare and services for the elderly were as minimal as possible. Balancing the budget honestly, in that context, was secondary. We did the job not of balancing the budget, but of saving what we saved.”

But with a Democratic governor now leading the state, the liberal Democratic Steinberg has changed his tune.

“Jerry Brown has impressed me with his candor, with his style, very unpretentious. He doesn’t walk around with a big entourage,” he said. “You see him walking around the Capitol; he’s not afraid to engage anybody in conversation. As he said, ‘If you want to solve the crisis, you have to elect a governor who has no future.’ He was only half joking.”

In any case, state politicians are running out of smoke, mirrors and band-aids to deal with the $26 billion deficit over the next 18 months.

“There are a couple of ways to deal with it,” Steinberg said. “One is to find additional triage or patches. I don’t know what those would be. There’s no more federal stimulus money. The temporary taxes have run out. The Republicans will not vote for more taxes to prop up this current structure. We have no more borrowing in order to balance the budget. Governor Brown has put forward, in my view, an honest, difficult framework for attempting to put the fiscal crisis behind us. $12.5 billion in cuts. In any other time I don’t think I would be able to stand by his framework.”

Steinberg is better able to stand by Brown’s call for a five-year extension in the increase in the sales tax, income tax and vehicle license fee, which is estimated to bring in $12.5 billion annually. Even without Republican support, Steinberg vowed that the tax extension will be on the June ballot “in order to avoid horrendous cuts to public education, the safety net, public safety and other public investment,” he said. “I have reluctantly come to the conclusion, and most of the Democratic Caucus, that this is the right framework.”

Steinberg acknowledged that a similar tax-hike extension was soundly rejected by California voters two years ago. But he believes it will have a better chance this go-around due to the proposed realignment of government services and return of tax money to counties and school districts, which are better able to serve local needs.

There also will be a full-court press from Sacramento for the tax extension. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson kicked off the campaign several weeks ago by declaring a “state of financial emergency in California’s schools.” Steinberg said that 30 budget hearings will be held in the coming months, and suggested the possibility of proposing two budgets based on whether the tax extension passes or not.

“It would tell the public, ‘Here’s what the other $12.5 billion (in cuts) would look like,'” said Steinberg. “We don’t want to scare people. There’s a fine line between scaring people and educating people. I believe we have to make a calculated risk. $12.5 billion in cuts – I hate it. I know many of you hate it. But I really believe that the only chance we have to help the economy recover and to begin rebuilding is to put the fiscal crisis behind us. Everything else we do in the legislature pales in comparison to this behemoth that lingers in front of us. Every year the people are tired of us. They don’t have confidence in government. They want it solved. We have to do it as compassionately as possible, but there’s no more reason to allow this to continue.”

The comments and questions from the mostly liberal audience, which included several social service advocates, focused on the need to avoid cuts and instead raise taxes on corporations. No one asked Steinberg whether taking an additional $60 billion from residents and businesses through the five-year tax hike extension would further sap the state’s moribund economy.

Steinberg townhall video

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  1. David from Oceanside
    David from Oceanside 24 January, 2011, 15:46

    Reading of Stienberg and his ilk is like viewing an accident on the side of the road. You know it will upset you and that your day would be a better one if you avoided it, but you just can’t help yourself.

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  2. EconProf
    EconProf 30 January, 2011, 20:32

    Though I didn’t vote for either Republican or Democrat candidate (I went libertarian), I always had a hunch Brown might be the best governor because the math would force him to confront reality and convince the looney left to do the same. CA is at a tipping point in which its future decline will become inevitable with the flight of taxpayers and businesses, and the abandonment of CA bond purchasers by the rest of the nation. Brown cannot run from this.

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