Budget patch job is better than IOUs
The Legislature's majority Democrats and minority Republicans and Gov. Schwarzenegger must compromise to keep the state from running out of money.
State Sen. George Runner, a Republican from Lancaster, rubs his eyes during the budget debate. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press / June 24, 2009)
Not every Capitol politician would be embarrassed, of course. And that's one of the problems. No real sense of responsibility. No shame.
There's now less than a week to negotiate a budget plan that closes a projected $24-billion deficit hole for the fiscal year starting July 1. State Controller John Chiang announced Wednesday that if the governor and Legislature haven't figured out how to balance the checkbook by then, he'll begin issuing registered warrants --a.k.a. IOUs or scrip.
Treasurer Bill Lockyer previously warned that the budget must be balanced by June 30 or he won't have enough time to sell revenue anticipation notes -- amounting to a short-term bridge loan -- before the cash runs out.
So how do the governor and Legislature avert insolvency? Where's the compromise?
All three sides have to give: Schwarzenegger, the Legislature's Democratic majority, the Republican minority.
The Democratic leadership might want to start by tossing the governor some bones he can call "reform."
Surely the poor people's safety net can operate more efficiently, especially the caregivers program called In Home Supportive Services.
It's one of the state's fastest-growing programs, used by 446,000 frail elderly and disabled who need help -- with bathing, with cooking -- in order to live semi-independently and stay out of costly nursing homes.
Even the state Senate's newly created oversight "strike force" found fraud and abuse within the program, although it stopped short of using such strong characterizations, out of deference, I suspect, to powerful labor unions.
Last month, 25 Southern Californians were charged with billing the state for in-home care to people who actually were dead, hospitalized or in jail. A Sacramento County grand jury reported in March that abuse was "rampant and out of control."
The Times reported in April that "it is common for the state to send paychecks to scam artists claiming to be caring for someone who is dead. Or claiming to be caring for a relative or friend faking a disability."
Schwarzenegger's solution was to eliminate in-home services for 90% of the recipients. A bit extreme. That idea was rejected by the Democratic-controlled budget conference committee, although it did reduce some services for the least disabled.
There seems to be room here for a no-brainer deal.
The state only had two fraud investigators for in-homes services until the Legislature approved six more in February. The Schwarzenegger administration wants 30.
The latest Democratic budget proposal projects a $40-million savings from rooting out fraud, but doesn't furnish the tools to do it -- tools such as the ability to conduct background checks on caregivers, fingerprint recipients, require time sheets to be signed under penalty of perjury and stage unannounced home visits. Why not?
Democratic leaders also could agree to seriously begin trimming the state's generous pension and healthcare systems. They're time bombs. It wouldn't affect this year's budget, but the current systems seem ultimately unsustainable -- fiscally and politically.
The other side also needs to compromise. Schwarzenegger and Republicans should take another look at the Democrats' proposal to tack a $15 "parks pass" onto the annual vehicle fee. That would keep open all the state parks. And California motorists could enter the parks free. The governor suggests closing 220, roughly 80% of the total.