When budgets are used as political cudgels

Democrats in the Legislature had no choice in recent years but to agree to many of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget demands. Californians had not yet swept away the damaging requirement that the budget be passed by a two-thirds vote, so a few Republicans working with the governor could block action. Billions of dollars in fact had to be cut, and budgets, however outrageously late, had to be adopted. The Democrats had to deal.

That kind of pressure can be productive when put to good use, but Schwarzenegger too often used it to win concessions that pushed a political agenda without making any fiscal sense. Take, for example, his “anti-fraud” initiative for the home health-aid program for the elderly and disabled. In the name of cracking down on supposed cheats, Schwarzenegger insisted that the elderly and disabled Californians aided by the In-Home Supportive Services program be fingerprinted every time state workers filled out their timesheets.

Any government aid program is susceptible to exploitation by crooks or to overpayment by mistake. Oversight and investigation, when evidence points to fraud, are appropriate. Fingerprinting the in-home healthcare aides, who are paid with taxpayer funds, made some sense. Fingerprinting the home-bound clients every other week was just plain harassment. The notion that people would falsely pose as home-bound in order to get visits from state workers is ludicrous.

Many Republican lawmakers, and apparently the governor, were philosophically opposed to the in-home healthcare program and were looking for ways to make it less attractive to those who would make use of it. They were wrong, of course. The alternatives to home aid are far more costly to the state: Aid recipients would have to go to nursing homes, or their relatives would have to leave the workforce and perhaps seek welfare for themselves in order to provide care for their loved ones at home.


As it turned out, the fingerprinting wouldn’t even do investigators any good. Law enforcement officials say applying the prints to plain paper such as timesheets is useless for investigations. The state and counties would have to provide fingerprint machines — at a cost of $41.6 million. That’s a waste of money when there are more effective and sensible ways of cracking down on waste and fraud.

The 2009 budget deal also bans counties from sending paychecks to homecare workers at post office boxes unless they specifically request, and the county approves, the use of a P.O. box. This is another state mandate that seems geared more toward making the program less convenient than identifying fraud.

The state Senate has passed a bill to repeal the P.O. box mandate and the requirement that aid applicants and recipients begin fingerprinting by July 1. It’s a smart move. SB 930, by Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa), now moves to the Assembly. Members of that house too would be wise to pass the bill and send it to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature, so that lawmakers and the administration can focus on actually saving money while providing Californians with needed services.