Legends in their own minds – Pacific Research Institute

Legends in their own minds

SACRAMENTO – When people ask why I moved to Sacramento to write

about California’s notoriously dysfunctional government, I say that, in

the next two or three years, the government here is likely to

(figuratively) crash and burn and that, as a journalist, I want a

front-row seat for the action.

While my seat is, more honestly, high up in the bleachers, I’m yet

to be disappointed by the amount of problems waiting to be covered. I’m

not surprised at the gaping budget hole, the ironclad control of the

Legislature by the insatiable public-sector unions or by the arrogance

of elected officials. But I am surprised – shocked, actually – at the

degree to which elected officials here are busy congratulating

themselves about all the hard choices they must make. Most of the

legislators seem to be, quite frankly, legends in their own minds – not

just in the minds of the special-interest groups that serve as their

funders and enablers.

After Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s final State of the State speech

in early January, he and Democratic Senate President Darrell Steinberg

wallowed in self-congratulation despite the obvious inabilities to even

balance the budget – an event I mocked in my column. But I’ve learned

that such delusional mutual congratulation is not the aberration, but

the norm.

The funniest recent example: The John F. Kennedy Presidential

Library & Museum last week bestowed its John F. Kennedy Profile in

Courage Award to four California legislative leaders who attempted to

fix the state’s never-ending budget problem by embracing a budget that

would have raised taxes on Californians up and down the economic ladder.

Granted, the JFK library is in Boston, but its press release quoting

Caroline Kennedy (cousin of Schwarzenegger’s wife, Maria Shriver)

captured the self-congratulatory tone common in Sacramento: “Faced with

the most difficult choices and a budget crisis of unprecedented

magnitude, these legislative leaders had the courage to negotiate a

compromise that they felt was in the public’s best interest. They did

so knowing they would suffer the wrath of their constituents, powerful

interest groups, and their own party members. The members of the

Profile in Courage Award Committee chose to herald this story of

political courage and bipartisan compromise with the hope that it will

inspire other elected officials facing similar challenges to stand up

with courage, to cross party lines, and to do whatever is necessary to

better serve the public interest.”

As one might exclaim on Twitter, OMG!!!!

The honorees are state Sen. Dave Cogdill and Assemblyman Mike

Villines, both Republicans, and Sen. Steinberg and Assemblywoman Karen

Bass, both Democrats.

The two Republicans were ousted from their party leadership roles

for violating the GOP’s stance against tax increases, so perhaps that

could be described in some ways as showing a bit of courage, although I

would never use the word courage to describe doing the wrong thing.

California has dreadfully high tax rates, and its government is

awash in waste, yet Cogdill and Villines thought it better to take more

money from the people who work hard and pay the bills than to challenge

their allies in the state bureaucracies.

And it’s not clear how courageous it was for the two Democrats to

endorse the tax increases, given that the state’s Democratic Party is

committed to few things other than raising taxes in order to pay for a

state government that spends more than it takes in.

The JFK center’s press release described the disastrous aftermath of

the budget deal. The budget referendum the honorees supported went, as

required, to the voters, who soundly rejected it. The state “began

issuing high-interest IOUs to vendors in lieu of payment. In 2010,

California’s budget problems go largely unresolved. The Pew Center on

the States has ranked California dead last among the 50 states on

fiscal health.”

As a CalWatchdog blog post put it, “Last year, four brave

‘legislative leaders’ stood up and signed a budget deal that everyone

hated and was ultimately trashed by the voters so it didn’t really fix

anything, and now our state government remains about $20 billion in the

hole and the economy still sucks like a Hoover upright. And for that we

are honoring those four ‘legislative leaders.’”

Ah, but this gets back to my observation. No elected officials here

are interested in genuinely tough choices. They like to give

vainglorious speeches and pat each other on the back while talking

about all their courage and tough-mindedness. I watched Assemblyman

Anthony Adams of Hesperia, another tax-supporting Republican, use the

word courage to describe his own vote. He dodged a recall effort and

announced that he won’t seek re-election, so at least he has a story to

tell himself and his grandkids to justify his unconscionable budget


For her part, former Speaker Bass gave new meaning to the word

courage when, as the Los Angeles Times reported, “In one of her last

acts as speaker of the state Assembly, Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles)

quietly doled out 10 percent pay raises and promotions to 20 of her

staff members.” She did this against a backdrop of state worker

furloughs and budget deficits. But if one defines courage as merely

doing something that will anger many people, as the JFK folks seem to

do, then former Speaker Bass had courage.

And the new speaker, John A. Perez, has courage, too, in case you

were worried about a courage deficit during this change of power. The

Sacramento Bee reported last week that Perez “handed out pay increases

or promotions totaling nearly $132,000 per year the day he was sworn in

this month, including a $65,000 raise to his chief of staff.”

If you or I presided over a corporate budget, or family checkbook,

for that matter, that was so deeply in debt and riddled with waste and

abuse that the creditors were breathing down our neck, we would be

filled with a certain amount of embarrassment or even shame. We

wouldn’t be buying ourselves a new car and then championing our courage

for buying only a Mercedes rather than a Bentley.

A Columbia University study from last year found that California

voters are more likely than voters in most other states to get the

policies that they say they want. So we can’t entirely blame

legislators for the sorry fiscal situation in state government. We get

what we vote for. But let’s at least not accept the delusion that

anything truly courageous is going on in Sacramento.

Steven Greenhut is director of the Pacific

Research Institute’s ( journalism center.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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