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A solution within reach

Democratic legislative leaders tossed a few clunkers into the budget-balancing plan they crafted last week, but for the most part it’s a responsible proposal that cuts deeply while preserving human-service programs and closing most of the state’s $24-billion gap. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is vowing to veto the package if it gets to his desk, but much of the Democrats’ plan follows the governor’s own suggestions.

For example, Schwarzenegger’s proposal would eliminate Medi-Cal, Healthy Families and other core safety-net programs that serve people in need and keep them from becoming even costlier burdens to state and local government. Yet he has said he’d rather keep those programs if there were another way to fill the budget hole.

There is: The governor once proposed an “oil severance” tax, the same charge on extracting oil that energy companies pay in all other oil-producing states. Good idea, the Democrats said. But the governor, who on different days appears equally comfortable on either side of the tax debate, is currently in hard-line, no-new-taxes mode. Instead, he wants to cut state workers’ pay by an additional 5%.

Republican lawmakers too are bent on cutting employee pay and are depicting the showdown as Big Labor versus the taxpayer. Why no, the Democrats answer, it’s about Big Oil versus the taxpayer. Truth be told, it’s not even about Big Labor versus Big Oil. It’s about Sacramento getting within inches of a solution to keep California afloat, then doing the bidding of various rarefied but big-moneyed interest groups.

If, in fact, the governor and his GOP colleagues believe Democrats are too deeply in union pockets -- and yes, it is a legitimate concern -- they should suggest a solution. A pay cut doesn’t weaken union influence, it simply scores points with conservatives and business donors.

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A tax on oil producers or, in a different part of the Democrats’ plan, smokers, is hardly an assault on taxpayers. Nonsmokers would remain unaffected by one, and all taxpayers would be only marginally affected by the other, in the form of higher costs over the long run for gasoline and everything else made with petroleum.

Democrats aren’t innocent. One of the aforementioned clunkers is their terrible idea to eliminate the high school exit exam. The cost savings would be puny, but lawmakers would win points with their teacher union allies.

Another clunker: shrinking the reserve fund. Schwarzenegger is correct to insist on setting aside enough money to deal with unanticipated wildfires or other crises. But with a little wrangling, and with focus on the state’s well-being rather than on interests with their own pecuniary axes to grind, Sacramento has a budget solution within reach.


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