Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Gone to the Dogs

Things are particularly dire these days in Sacramento, that political Chernobyl where good government goes to die.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is calling the state's budget deficit, estimated at more than $15 billion, a "fiscal emergency."

At the same time, a new Field Poll states that only 40% of the residents of our fair land think Arnie is doing a good job. And 57% think the state legislature stinks.

Indeed, 68 per cent think the state is on the wrong track while only 21 per cent think it's moving in the right direction.

But forget all that.

This week, in the kind of bold action that has made making law in Sacramento legendary, our legislature passed and the governor signed a bill that will allow you to leave your personal fortune to your cat.

Or iguana, goat, parakeet, fish or whatever happens to be hanging around at the time you write your will.

We may be broke. Our schools may be going to hell. We may be running out water. But, by God, Californians will have the right to take care of Rex and Fluffy in their golden years.

This bit of legislative derring-do is brought to you by state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) whose law will take effect Jan. 1.

Unlike most states, California law has treated pet trust funds as honorary and therefore the trusts are often unenforceable, he said.

"Pets are an important part of the American family," Yee said. "SB 685 will make pet trusts enforceable and assure that the wishes of pet owners are respected."

Great work, Mr. Yee. But while you were busy trying to nail down the pet owner vote, June 15 came and went, the date on which the state constitution says a budget must be enacted.
Then came the next deadline, July 1, when the new fiscal year begins.
By late August, the state could be unable to pay its bills without borrowing.

What's going on here?

The Democrats and Republicans are fighting like, well, cats and dogs. Bickering and backbiting are the status quo.

The Democrats contend revenues can be can be raised by closing tax loopholes. Republicans are calling the Democratic plan a tax hike by any other name.

The governor, for his part, wants to borrow heavily against future state lottery revenues, a plan that has flopped with Democrats, Republicans and, according to polls, the public as well.
And if his scheme fails, you and I will pay an additional sales tax of one cent, raising it to 8.25 per cent.

How do we get out of this mess, short of leveling the capitol and starting all over again?

One bright light is a bipartisan, foundation supported group called California Forward which is attempting to get a handle on the problem.

The groups says its mission is "to transform our state government through citizen-driven solutions to provide better representation, smarter budgeting and fiscal management, and high quality public services so all Californians have the opportunity to be safe, healthy and prosperous in the global economy."

"The current budget process," the group says," is largely a relic of the mid-20th century, with the focus on how much to increase spending (or how much to cut), rather than the value that public services bring to Californians over time.

"These annual budget decisions often either push California's fiscal systems toward long-term solvency or away from it. The ongoing and chronic imbalance between revenues and expenditures is one indicator of system failure. Changing how budget process decisions are made could enable public leaders to deal with the more intractable and complex problems involving the revenue system and the state-local relationship."

It's a noble quest, one that could take years to accomplish.

But California Forward is a ray of hope because it's clear that reform in Sacramento will have to come from outside of the legislative establishment.

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