Penny-pinching budget targets lawmakers

Cutting government spending often entails cutting the bureaucracy and programs, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s latest budget goes one step further: It includes a 10 percent cut in the Legislature’s spending. The governor is wielding his budget ax on the very people whose approval he needs to get his budget passed.

The governor’s own office also plans to take a 10 percent hit, although the real impact of such a reduction is not easily computed, because many of the governor’s key people receive salary increases from political campaign funds, which is legal. According to the Department of Finance, the agency that drafts the governor’s budget, staffing at the governor’s office suite has remained steady at 185 positions since 2005, but the budget for the office has risen from $18.1 million in 2005 to $19.6 million in 2007. An immediate 10 percent cut would reduce the current year’s budget to just under what it was in 2005.

The Legislature’s budget has also risen significantly in recent years. This year, the Legislature’s total budget was $256.5 million, about $37 million more than it was two years ago. An immediate 10 percent cut would reduce the budget to about $230 million, which is almost exactly what it was in 2005. Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez said this week that his house would voluntarily accept a 10 percent cut; the Senate had not decided as of Thursday but said it would not force others to accept any cuts that it wasn’t willing to face itself. “The Senate would not contemplate any cuts to programs that we wouldn’t first impose on ourselves,” said Alicia Trost, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Don Perata, D-Oakland.

The governor’s office did not publicly discuss the proposed 10 percent cut, although on Wednesday — the day before the governor was scheduled to unveil his budget — it was the talk of both houses. “I hadn’t heard about, but I asked them (fiscal experts) and they said they knew all about it. They’re all taking about it,” one staff member said.

Even with deep cuts, reaching a $14 billion target would be difficult, Núñez noted. “If there’s a $14 billion deficit, you could close every one of the state’s public universities and still be nowhere close. You could kick every MediCal patient out of their nursing homes and still be nowhere close. You could shutter nutrition programs for every child that needs them and still be nowhere close.

In fact, you could take all of those steps together and still face a serious budget gap,” Núñez said.

Perata also was blunt: “Advocating automatic cuts but failing to establish priorities and how to fund them is political expediency at its best and political leadership at its worst,” he said.

It also wasn’t clear whether cutting the legislative budget was easily done. The legislative budget’s growth is limited to about 6 percent annually, under the voter-approved ballot initiative of 1990 that cut spending and lawmakers’ terms. Does that mean a 10 percent cut actually would be 4 percent — stopping the planned increase plus 4 percent more? “Who knows what the methodology is,” one Senate staff member said.

“I think that (a 10 percent cut) is reasonable, but the legislative budget is set up under a separate proposition. But it is certainly reasonable to ask everyone to cut expenses, although there are some things you can’t cut,” said Senate Republican Leader Dick Ackerman. “You can’t cut debt service. One other thing I would probably spare is the judiciary. We put them under a separate funding formula.”

“Another area is Corrections,” Ackerman added. “We disagree with the proposal for the early release of inmates. I don’t know whether you can get a 10 percent cut in Corrections.”

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