We’re approaching the Ides of May, which means one thing in Sacramento: plenty of talk about a revised budget, hot off the presses Thursday, and whether a California economy that’s global in scale and upward in its trajectory can satisfy one nation-state’s bottomless stomach.
Democrats will complain up to and past the mid-June fiscal deadline that the state doesn’t invest enough. Republicans will gripe the opposite: We spend too much.
Both have a point.
California’s commitment to courts and libraries, for example, is woefully inadequate. Lawmakers, please, give State Librarian Greg Lucas the additional resources he needs to make ours a more cultured, literate society.
On the other hand, the math is troublesome.
I first called Sacramento home in 1994. That summer’s budget: $57.5 billion. This year’s revised state budget? $183.4 billion. State spending has tripled while California’s population has grown by one-quarter. Meanwhile, the nation’s population has grown by slightly less, 22.8 percent; the federal budget has nearly doubled from $1.9 trillion to $3.65 trillion.
Lest you think this is just another screed to lay waste to state spending, let’s pump the brakes.
Any Republican lawmaker who wants to wield a scalpel will fast discover that roughly 7 in 8 budget dollars are off-limits – practically, politically.
It requires (a) going to the ballot to undo the likes of Proposition 98 (a 1998 voter-approved law that requires a minimum percentage of the state budget to be dedicated to K-12 spending), or (b) passing legislation to pare back existing programs. The former’s a Himalayan – if not impossible – climb at the ballot box; the latter’s a non-starter given Democratic supermajorities.
Here’s a different approach to the budget that Republicans might consider: marshal their resources to try electing one of their own as state controller.
Why that particular office? It’s a conversation I’ve had with alarming frequency over the years – every time an individual of considerable wealth and job uncertainty approaches me with their desire to launch a political career in the Golden State.
My advice: Run for state controller.
Their response: Never heard of it.
My response: The controller is California’s CFO – you ensure the books aren’t cooked; you certify the budget is balanced.
And … you have the authority to audit all levels of government independent of both the legislative and executive branches.
Think “Wheel of Fortune.” A smart Republican state controller could spin the dial and scrub Sacramento agencies and departments, not to mention misguided local governments.
Do the job right and, by the time of the May Revise, said controller will be asking the governor for extra money to hire a food-tester and someone to start the company car.
Lest you think this lacks political sizzle, ask yourself which is of greater concern to state taxpayers – Ann Coulter’s free-speech rights or a $175 million secret fund at UC Berkeley.
Ego and ambition being what they are, this advice never gets taken. Individuals with deep pockets want to be the next Daniel Webster and not Daniel Kenfield (he was a GOP state controller 140 years ago).
Last fall’s election marked the 50th anniversary of the last GOP candidate to be elected California’s state controller – Houston Flournoy. Eight years later, he was Jerry Brown’s first Republican gubernatorial victim.
The other day, I watched some videotape of Flournoy in his first controller run, which coincided with Ronald Reagan’s first run for governor. Flournoy alluded to the office having access to state boards and commissions (look what that’s done for Gavin Newsom), spoke of being a “guardian of taxpayers’ money” and bemoaned legislators signing off on “a series of patchwork approaches that ignore the fundamental deficiency of revenue in California.”
All of those thoughts resonate in the California of 2017, as they would a year from now.
California Republicans won’t have a Reagan at the top of the ballot in November 2018. Still, they’d benefit from a modern-day champion of government accountability and integrity.
Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.