My Gloss on The Golden State

by Conor Friedersdorf

In The New Republic, Anthony Wright laments health care budget cuts in California:

The consequences will be kids not getting glasses to see the blackboard, missing school for toothaches, and otherwise delaying care. One ailment or accident on the playground would put families at risk of financial ruin, and needed care will be delayed or avoided altogether. Children’s and other community groups don’t mince words when they say that cuts at this scale mean kids will die

Democracy in America reacts:

That's a liberal view, of course. If you're looking at the situation from a conservative perspective, you're seeing a state that incrementally added more and more programmes to cover its residents. That caused it to run out of money more quickly and created dangerous dependencies amongst groups of citizens who counted on coverage that was unsustainable. The crisis (and voter unwillingness to back new taxes) is now forcing the state to raid local governments for money, which is what conservatives see happening to Medicare if Democrats pass national health-care reform.
Liberals might respond that even limited government can't work without stable revenue sources, and they'd have a point. Neither side is exactly right, but as the larger debate over health-care reform heats up, both parties could do well by leaving Washington for a few days to survey California's wreckage.

My reaction is different. What vexes me as a Californian are all the better ways the state could reduce its expenditures were the legislature only willing to rein in the most egregious giveaways to its most reliable cash cow lobbies. Pension obligations could be radically reduced by changing the formula that allows all public safety employees, broadly construed, to receive 90 percent of their salary for life upon retirement. State prison costs would decrease if the state decriminalized drug possession and stopped prostrating itself before the prison guard union. School reform could cut administrative costs higher than in most states without affecting money being spent in the classroom -- for example, by reversing a state of affairs where school districts pay problem teachers millions of dollars to stay out of the classroom, for starters. Repeat offenders would decrease if the state identified illegal immigrants in its jails and ensured their deportation at the conclusion of their sentence, rather than releasing them back into the populace. A state in need of revenue might reconsider workers' compensation laws that are among the costliest in the nation for taxpayers and businesses -- and a business climate that is generally less friendly than that of its neighbors, so that tax generating enterprises stop relocating elsewhere.

This isn't to discount arguments that California's ballot measures produced structural problems in budgeting, or that illegal immigration imposes burdens on the Golden State that are greater than what many other jurisdictions face, or that perhaps short term tax hikes are needed, any of the other explanations commonly offered to explain the state's troubles.

It is to say that voters are loath to raise taxes or reverse ballot measures they approved in the past when the legislature stubbornly refuses to make even the most commonsensical reforms left up to its discretion. That is, after all, the job of a legislature, isn't it? To do what is best for the state given constraints on its power?

Alas, the California legislature is so busy complaining about the things voters or minority Republicans won't allow it to do that it ignores the numerous ways that it can improve matters, if only it abandons its dogmas and the interests of the deep pockets who fund its bids for reelection. One consequence of this attitude is deep cuts in health care for kids. If Republicans who refuse tax hikes bear partial responsibility for the consequences of those cuts, so do a generation of Democratic law makers who marshaled their sizable majority to pass unsustainable social spending, take on unsustainable public employee burdens, and otherwise put California on the path to fiscal ruin -- refusing to reverse course even after it became apparent that things would end in the disaster we now see.