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No job for robots

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Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is touring California to sell voters on his plan to further automate the state budget, supposedly to guarantee that we never again find ourselves with a shortfall as severe as the one we face today. The argument goes that political heads are too emotional, too volatile, too human, to wisely put aside any “extra” money from good years, even for the laudable goal of ensuring that schools remain open and patients continue getting medical care during years of economic reckoning.

Under Schwarzenegger’s budget reform plan, a predicted surplus would trigger robotic savings, keeping the state’s money out of legislative hands. Projected shortfalls would launch predetermined program-slashing cuts. There would be none of the sweat or stress associated with political debate.

It’s demonstrably true that Republicans, like the governor, do their best to bend unexpected revenue into imprudent tax breaks, and that Democrats work equally hard to use that money for programs. Their fight is known as politics. It is the operating system of democracy. Californians should refuse to give up that messy but essential discussion in favor of machine-like budgeting that eliminates their voice from the most basic function of self-government.

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Schwarzenegger argues that 42 states grant their governors some kind of authority to impose midyear spending adjustments when revenue falls short, and that California’s governor also once had that power and ought to get it back. His proposal, though, comes out of Arkansas, one of the nation’s poorest states, where elected lawmakers leave their day jobs once every other year for 60 days to approve an annual budget that isn’t much bigger than California’s deficit. Arkansas has little to teach one of the world’s largest economies about budgeting.

But Schwarzenegger’s plan would go further, adding to the governor’s already sweeping power the new authority to suspend laws. Not even the part-time Arkansas Legislature is as marginalized as that move would make California’s elected representatives.

The Budget Stabilization Act nearly removes the human element from self-government. It is budgetary Skynet, marketed as a program smarter than the people it supposedly serves but destined to strip from people the benefits, as well as the burdens, of financial decision-making. A better future for California will come when voters and elected officials begin to make tough choices, not when they shrug their shoulders and relinquish their power to a budget machine.

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