Reason magazine

California Screaming: The Budget Deficit Blame Game

Golden State's political class comes unglued in the face of a citizens' revolt

On May 19, California voters went to the polls to decide whether to pass a package of six tax-and-gimmick ballot propositions. Its supporters—Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Democratic legislative leaders, the California Teachers Association, and the overwhelming majority of the state’s major newspapers—billed it as the last best hope to plug Sacramento’s $24 billion budget deficit. “Either pass it,” warned the Los Angeles Times editorial board, “or risk fiscal disaster.”

Those who believe that either money or the media determine political outcomes should pay close heed to what happened next: Although opponents were outspent by more than 7 to 1, they trounced the state’s political class, rejecting five of the six measures by an average of 30 percentage points. The only proposition to pass was an anger-driven new law that limits elected officials’ salaries.

Faced with such thorough repudiation, California’s best and brightest then did a telling thing. They lashed right back.

The Los Angeles Times headlined its morning-after news analysis, “California Voters Exercise Their Power—and That’s the Problem.” Sacramento columnist George Skelton argued that “voters helped get themselves into this fix” by “passing feel-good ‘ballot box budgeting’ initiatives” and sanctioning “heavy borrowing” for “infrastructure projects.” Business columnist Michael Hiltzik averred that “far more blame for the deficit belongs to California voters” because “year in, year out, they enact spending mandates at the polls, often without endowing a revenue source.” Missing from any of these critiques was the fact that the Times’ own editorial board endorsed more than 90 percent of the very same ballot-box bond measures during the last decade. No matter: A perpetrator had been located.

“Good morning, California voters,” The Sacramento Bee’s post-election editorial began. “Do you feel better, now that you’ve gotten that out of your system?” The Bee, which (like the Times) had endorsed four of the five losing measures, came under immediate attack for its heavy-handed, citizen-blaming sarcasm. (A sample: “So, now that you’ve put those irksome politicians in their place, maybe it’s time to think about this: Since you’re in charge, exactly what do you intend to do about that pesky $25 billion hole in the budget?”) Rush Limbaugh gleefully read passages on his show, San Diego Union-Tribune editorial writer Chris Reed called it “staggeringly juvenile, arrogant and revealing,” and commenters on the Bee’s website were full of reactions like, “What an obnoxious editorial. Nevertheless, it illustrates that the Bee is completely in favor of bigger government and higher taxes.”

Then another funny thing happened: The Bee scrubbed the editorial off its website, replacing it with a much more conciliatory piece, addressed this time to legislators. The original editorial had been posted in “error,” the paper explained, and the new piece was the one that appeared in the print edition. “That [first] article was a draft prepared for internal discussion among members of The Bee’s editorial board,” a brief note said. “Such discussions are a routine part of our work, and frequently lead to editorials that are considerably different from writers’ first drafts.”

This instant airbrushing, normally fodder for such journalism-tracking websites as Jim Romenesko’s Media News, went virtually ignored by all but a few mostly right-leaning websites. So did another colossal gaffe, by the aforementioned Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik, who thundered that the very notion California had a “spending problem” was an “infectious myth.”

Hiltzik claimed that the state government’s budget growth had kept pace “almost to the penny” with growth in population and inflation during the last decade. There were three problems with this analysis: Hiltzik miscalculated population growth (claiming 30 percent instead of 14 percent), he chose a federal inflation rate of 50 percent during that period instead of the California Consumer Price Index figure of 35 percent, and, most important, he excluded from state spending more than $100 billion in bond measures. This whopper was roasted and dissected on local talk radio, but it was unmentioned by more august repositories of public policy and journalism debate, such as the Times-tracking LA Observed.

Rarely has the chasm between elite political discourse and grubby popular opinion been displayed in such sharp relief. The implications of this citizen revolt—and the hostile reactions to it—stretch far beyond Nevada’s western border. California is the Ghost of Federal Government Future.

During the last two decades, the Golden State has been transformed from what was once known as the nation’s most anti-labor outpost to a state essentially run by public-sector unions. Nearly three in five publicsector workers are unionized, compared to less than two in five public employees in other states. The Democratic Party, which is fully in hock to unions, has controlled the legislature and most statewide posts, with the notable exception of the governor’s mansion, for more than a decade. That means more government workers, higher salaries, and drastically higher pension costs. 

According to Adam Summers—a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this magazine—the state’s annual pension fund contribution vaulted from $321 million in 2000–01 to $7.3 billion last year. According to public databases, more than 5,000 people are drawing pensions in excess of $100,000 from the state of California each year.

So pervasive is the union influence that big labor doesn’t even try to defend its deleterious effects on California’s finances. Just before the special election, a member of the Los Angeles Times editorial board asked Service Employees International Union chief Andy Stern to respond to charges that unions are the 21st-century equivalent of the railroads that were once all-powerful in California. Stern verbally shrugged: “I think democracy is an ugly thing at times.”

That ugliness has made the California budget, like those in most of the other 49 states, less efficient and more bloated. Government spending, unlike spending in the private economy, is a zero-sum game—especially on the state level, since governors can’t print money. Every dollar spent gilding a pension is a dollar not spent funding an orphanage. Naturally, the same elite outlets that were busy blaming voters after the election spent even more time detailing the horrors of the “annihilating cuts,” as the Los Angeles Times called them in a news article, that were coming down the pike. (In early June, the paper invited readers to be shocked that a high school with 3,200 students would have to make do with just three guidance counselors.) Bloated pension costs and the increasingly inefficient provision of state services received a fraction of the coverage.

The federal government is now run by a president and Congress more responsive to union concerns than any in at least two decades. The same bloat currently bogging down statehouses and city halls is being duplicated in boomtown Washington, D.C. President Barack Obama even brought Andy Stern in to help warn Schwarzenegger that federal stimulus money would not be disbursed to California unless the governor rescinded some proposed state job cuts. Though that threat was later withdrawn, Schwarzenegger at press time was pushing for a measly work force reduction of 2 percent.

But there’s another interpretation of California’s rebellion, one with far sunnier implications for those of us who prefer our governments constrained. Faced with a political class that ignored bureaucratic inefficiency, that demanded higher taxes, that filled the newspapers with scare stories about people who will literally die as a result of budget cuts, the citizens of one of the bluest states in the nation collectively said we just don’t believe you anymore. If even California’s famous fruits and nuts can call the statists’ bluff, there may be hope for the rest of the country.

Matt Welch (matt.welch@reason.com) is editor in chief of Reason magazine, where this column first appeared.

Matt Welch is Editor in Chief, Reason





;