As California’s Legislature churns toward Friday’s deadline for a new state budget, the macro-issues are well known, such as whether health, welfare and child care services should be slashed by billions of dollars to close the deficit.
However, other aspects of the budget wrangle go largely unnoticed, such as the march into secrecy — or, more accurately, sneakiness.
For decades, a few key legislators drafted the entire budget in secrecy with virtually no public exposure or input, but about 40 years ago, there was an internal revolt after one powerful senator loaded up the budget with park projects in his district.
The “park barrel” incident, as it was dubbed, led to reforms in how the budget was drafted, including public hearings and recorded committee votes on specific items.
In recent years, however, the process has been reverting to secrecy, with major policy decrees, including those totally unrelated to the budget, being drafted in the dead of night and enacted without any public exposure.
This year, the Legislature is taking even more steps down the path of government secrecy by abolishing the traditional “conference committee” that goes through the budget line by line in public, and by increasing the number of so-called “trailer bills,” many of which contain token $1,000 appropriations but have no real budget connection.
What’s the real agenda? Giveaways of one kind or another to favored interest groups.
One goody in the budget is a limit on damages in wildfire liability cases, benefiting timber companies, in return for a $30 million special tax on lumber to cover state regulatory costs, pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Mostly, however, the budget contains benefits for public employee unions, the chief source of campaign money for Brown’s tax increase and Democratic office seekers.
While Brown wants state employees to take a pay cut by working fewer hours, for instance, his budget would reduce outside contracting, thus creating more jobs for unionized workers.
Another provision would keep four centers for the developmentally disabled open, preserving their state jobs, even though they serve scarcely 1,500 residents, a fraction of their capacity. They cost more than a half-billion dollars — more than $350,000 per resident. Meanwhile, community-based care programs, which cost just one-third as much, are being hit by budget cuts.
Still another example is the multi-billion-dollar program that pays hundreds of thousands of union workers for in-home services to the disabled and elderly.
Brown wants to reduce costs, which would cut workers’ pay, but Democrats would offset that by shifting ultimate authority over contracts from local governments to a new, union-friendly state agency.
Dan Walters covers state politics for the Sacramento Bee.