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It's the Spending, Stupid! By: Jill Stewart
SFGate.com | Monday, June 16, 2003

NOT LONG AGO the Assembly Appropriations Committee, facing California's $38.2 billion budget deficit, shelved one proposed spending bill after another, spending being a pointless topic. I watched as committee chairman Darrell Steinberg noted the only good news was that President Bush was sending Sacramento $2.4 billion in relief.

Hearing news of the inbound $2.4 billion, a member of the committee declared, "Well, maybe now we'll be able to fund some of these programs we are talking about!"

I'll admit, I snorted reflexively. Then I perched forward to see who had uttered such a thing. But my view was blocked as a curious contingent of citizens craned their necks at the same time.

We in the peanut gallery glanced in amazement at one another. These Sacramento politicos have driven California to the brink of financial collapse with their gross overspending, and some assemblywoman with a microphone glued to her lips still doesn't get it?

Could this be right? Gov. Gray Davis and the majority Democrats are asking taxpayers to cough up $8.3 billion in new taxes -- including $4 billion in tripled auto license fees, making California's taxes the highest by far -- and Sacramento isn't using the $2.4 billion to pay down its deficit?

One man remarked how easily fat cats burn our money. But to my consternation, many in the hearing room were nodding, agreeing the $2.4 billion should be quickly spent.

These two reactions speak volumes about the crisis that threatens California's credit rating and its very economy as the Legislature careens toward July 1 without a budget.

Although you can't glean it from most news about Sacramento, the majority Democrats have clung to huge spending programs and made only the barest in real cuts -- $3 billion or so from a $78 billion budget. Up nearly $20 billion from 1998, California spends almost twice per capita what Arizona spends to deliver state services.

In months of hand-wringing histrionics, Democrats have persuaded media flatliners to focus on the anti-tax Republicans. But it is difficult to overstate the broad failure of the majority Democrats to lead, be adults, belt-tighten and try to avert ruin.

As a Democrat often disgusted by my party, I sought the thoughts of two moderates known as careful thinkers, Democrat Al Checchi and Republican Tony Quinn. I got an earful about the foolishness of the Dems and their media enablers.

Checchi, the multimillionaire who lost to Davis in a 1998 run for the governor's office, flatly stated, "To blame this on the GOP's opposition to taxes is absurd. The California Legislature is very, very far left, and they are oblivious to what creates jobs and they are destroying the economic base of California. The California media are so consistently myopic -- consistently! -- that you have to look to national publications to see how bad Sacramento is doing in comparison to other states."

Adds Checchi: "These folks have set the state back so far with indiscriminate spending, it will take 20 years to straighten out what they have done. But they are oblivious, so naturally their reaction is to spend the $2.4 billion."

Far-left fiscal flakes abound, such as likable Santa Monica Democratic Sen. Sheila Kuehl. Kuehl just pushed through the Senate a troubling "universal health care" bill to give the state -- whose Medi-Cal is arguably the most inefficient in the United States -- the power to abolish all private health insurance and control the care of every Californian. Kuehl is also dying to spend the $2.4 billion -- not blow it paying a silly deficit. Yet like her brethren, she hasn't cut any bloated state bureaucracies.

Republican Sen. Ray Haynes of Riverside says the moment Bush announced the federal relief, state Democrats revived $1.9 billion in spending. "They spent it on 'stuff' and didn't use any of it to reduce the current debt -- incredible." Quips Senate Republican fiscal spokesman H.D. Palmer, "I think they've got direct deposit."

Tony Quinn, co-editor of the nonpartisan report on legislative races, California Target Book, notes, "Many legislators feel comfortable saying they are going to spend that $2.4 billion because, first and foremost, they have 'safe' districts at home where they cannot be unseated by the other party. The media in California rarely explain to the public that's what is actually going on."

Quinn adds, "Davis should have spent the temporary surplus from the stock market run-up on one-time projects, not on growing permanent programs with loud protectors. He let the Democrats push him into what he knew was wrong. Most media don't mention that it's still happening."

With Democrats refusing to bite the bullet, Checchi suggests, "I am not so sure California wouldn't be better off if a trustee took it over and ran it instead of this governor and this Legislature."

Imagine what a historic downfall that would be. After all, California is a state that loves to be first.

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