June 10, 2009
We're in a bind here in California, mates, in case you hadn't noticed. The till is tapped, the budget deficit is bigger than the great outdoors, and lately even the sun has disappeared.
What's crystal clear is that the governor can't fix this mess. His mouth still runs, but his muscle has turned to flab.
The Legislature? Give me a break.
And so when I got an e-mail from John Q. Public with an offbeat solution to the Golden State's ongoing financial fiasco, I gave it a second look, and then a third, because to be honest, it made more sense than anything coming out of Sacramento.
The answer, Michael Daly told me, is not less suffering, but more. That's the only way out.
Daly said that if I wanted to hear more over good coffee and sweet rolls, I was welcome to visit him in his lair.
Hmmm. Coffee, rolls and suffering.
Sure, why not?
So I drove down to southern Orange County and into the hills of Mission Viejo to meet up with Daly, a retired political aide and economic development manager, a big redhead who towers over me and has hands like a bear's mitts. We went out to his back patio, and he delivered on the coffee and rolls, and then he began talking about putting a hurt on his fellow Californians.
"I'm talking about real pain," he said, grimacing as though a dagger was at his throat. "Catastrophic pain."
What we have to do, Daly said, is take a bigger cut out of government spending than anyone has ever imagined. He is not, by the way, a love child of Howard Jarvis, but is in fact a Democrat, though he tends not to advertise that in his neck of the woods.
The problem up to now, we agreed, is that middle- and upper-class people haven't had to feel any pain because budget cuts are always aimed at the poor, elderly and disabled. If Daly were king of California, he would swing such a mean blade that Republican legislators would start calling for higher taxes to pay for the services their constituents demand, and Democrats would have to make hard choices instead of throwing money at every social service imaginable while the state goes broke.
So how would Daly take aim at the middle class?
"If we shut down half the DMV offices in the state, that would cause real pain," he said with an evil grin.
He has got a point.
Take away state support for canes, seeing-eye dogs and wheelchairs and you might spark a small protest rally in Sacramento. But force people to drive past a shuttered DMV office to have a license renewed, only to find that the lines are twice as long as normal, and we'll have a revolution on our hands.
What other ideas does Daly have for wreaking havoc from Shasta to Sherman Oaks?
"Close every other state court," he said. "Shutter half of the state's libraries."
The libraries that remain open, by the way, would have to pay for themselves. So the next time you check out a book, it might cost a couple of bucks.
Freeways would no longer be free; we'd have toll roads everywhere. We could close a few prisons and put much cheaper halfway houses in, say, Bel-Air and Laguna Niguel. And we'd convert to pay-as-you-go with police, firefighters and paramedics.
"If you have a $2.5-million budget" for a police department, "how much does each call cost?" Daly asked. "Let's figure it out and charge people accordingly."
And let's say your house is on fire.
"Each call for services would require a cash payment of $1,000 up front," Daly said. "No checks or credit cards accepted."
In case you were wondering, no, Daly's coffee was not spiked. He was sober as a Mormon bishop, and although he sounded as though he was channeling Jonathan Swift with his modest proposal, his point was quite coherent.
He's tired, I'm tired and you're tired of intractability and political pablum when it comes to California's enduring budget fiasco.
The state clearly needs to spend less and take in more, and yet honest compromise and meaningful reform are impossible because elected officials represent the fringes rather than the middle, thanks in part to the way legislative districts are drawn.
Voting your conscience in the spirit of compromise has proved fatal, Daly said.
"The party comes to you and says you didn't vote the way you were supposed to, so they're going to run the Fresno football coach against you and spend $1 million, $1.5 million, to get him elected."
It's preposterous, Daly said, that "three guys from the San Joaquin Valley can hold up" the entire state budget.
"Who are they? Can they add three and three? Do they have any economic or budget-balancing experience?"
It's just as absurd that while people in the private sector continue losing healthcare coverage and 401(k) accounts, members of public employee unions enjoy Cadillac benefits because their bosses have bought off Democratic legislators.
So let's force a huddle, decide what we want and how to pay for it, and then put a little away for the next rainy day.
It was in Orange County that candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger set things on the wrong track when he dropped a wrecking ball to symbolically crush the car tax.
I was there to see it, and now I'm looking at a budget gap which, at more than $20 billion, is roughly what Schwarzenegger's stunt cost the state in revenue.
Here's his last chance to leave a legacy he can be proud of.
Don't be such a girlie man with the budget cuts, Arnold.
Make them hurt in Brentwood and beyond, and bring the partisan hacks to their knees.
Like you used to say when you worked with those other dumbbells:
"No pain, no gain."
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