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Commentary: Calif. plan trys for bit of budget discipline

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opinion Willmar, 56201

Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

SAN DIEGO -- Read my lips: Like everyone else, I'd prefer no new taxes. Americans are taxed too much as it is and politicians -- in both parties -- are too wasteful with other people's money. Or, as we were reminded during the debate over the stimulus bill, they're too busy scheming new ways to stimulate their careers by using our dollars to bring pork to their districts, pursue ideological goals, fund pet projects and reward their supporters.

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So I'm not pleased that the compromise budget worked out here in California includes $12 billion in new taxes along with -- and here's the good news -- $14.9 billion in spending cuts. Nor are many other California residents, who will have their say about approving some of the budget details in a special statewide referendum on May 19.

Yet in a time of crisis, it would be irresponsible for our elected officials to stubbornly take any remedial action off the table and refuse to even discuss it. And in that vein, it's obvious from the raucous budget debate in California -- and the populist fallout since -- that Golden State Republicans would be wise to reconsider their absolute hard line against any tax increases, even in dire straits. In the state Senate, only one Republican voted for the package. And it may well cost him his career.

The bigger worry is what the budget deal will cost California. Rumors of the state's demise have been greatly exaggerated, and it remains a highly desirable -- if, at times, crushingly expensive -- place to live and do business. While many people are leaving, others continue to move in. No matter what happens with the budget wrangling in Sacramento, tourists will still come here to spend money, and companies will still move here to make money.

Still, the figures don't lie. California has a budget deficit of $42 billion, and it's one of the states that have been hit hardest by the mortgage crisis. Republicans have made some bad choices, such as alienating Hispanics over issues like immigration and language. So now California is controlled by Democrats, and those Democrats are beholden to public-sector unions that have a knack for putting their interests before the common good.

Then there is what is unfolding in the national arena. Future generations of Californians will have to pick up their share of the cost for the gargantuan $787 billion stimulus package passed by Congress. Whatever else the emergency legislation accomplishes -- and unfortunately, it might not accomplish much -- it has already managed to tighten the screws on Republican governors who blasted the deal and yet are eager to claim their chunk of the federal bailout. It seems that nothing turns a fiscal conservative into a tax-and-spend liberal quite like the allure of free money -- even if it isn't really free. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger comes to mind. He was elected as an economic reformer but is now eagerly awaiting his share of the stimulus money.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal doesn't want his state to accept $98 million to expand unemployment benefits for people who wouldn't normally be eligible to receive them. Taking the money would also require a permanent change in state law that Jindal says would cost more in the long run.

Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger would probably also take Louisiana's share if he could.

We'll see about that. Perfection is not often seen in politics. For now, it's enough to say that the California budget deal, while not pretty, represents a realistic stab at something that neither political party seems to care much about: fiscal responsibility.

Washington, take note.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is navarrette@wctrib.com.

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