ARNOLD'S NEXT MOVE: DETENTE WITH THE DEMOCRATS
by Jill Stewart
American Reporter Correspondent
SACRAMENTO -- Democratic legislators sat with blank faces on Jan. 6, many not applauding even once at Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's State of the State speech, illustrating both the partisan world of Sacramento and also the delicate psychological handling these shell-shocked politicians will require.
I have a guiding principal and a plan to offer the guv, who must work with the majority Democrats if anything remotely resembling his budget is to be passed.
First, the guiding principal: The battle is going to be awful, but it will be much worse if he bashes the Democrats in the manner the Republicans have for the past several years.
Schwarzenegger seemed to acknowledge this when he asked the legislators to rise above past partisan behaviors. He said California "is an empire of hopes and aspirations" and voters are sick of the constant attacking and bickering in Sacramento.
I accept that my own Democratic Party is entirely to blame for California's fiscal crisis. So do voters, who spoke on Oct. 7. But even the conservative Cato Institute points out that most state legislatures flush with income tax revenue from the stock market run-up of a few years ago lost their collective wits. California's misdeeds were, however, by far the most egregious.
Despite this history, Schwarzenegger must demonstrate that he is the state's executive, and a real leader. Even as the Dems assault him in nasty press conferences and try to induce guilt by rolling out people in wheelchairs, Schwarzenegger must launch Democratic DE9tente.
That is, he must help the Democrats find ways to save money while saving face. Politicians under constant attack don't address problems. They circle the wagons.
First, Schwarzenegger must fulfill his promise to root out waste and fraud. The Democrats saw this campaign promise as an empty attack on their ability to govern. He owes the Democrats an answer, and should spell out in detail what he intends to fix.
Second, on looming battles to cut social programs, Schwarzenegger must emphasize reform. Democrats need to be able to tell voters: "Things will be tougher on people, but with less bureaucratic overhead."
So, can Schwarzenegger find a couple of billion dollars annually in waste and fraud to be saved?
Oh, yeah. I can find that much, just from poring over the past year's sad media coverage of California and the way it was being run under Gov. Gray Davis.20
California pays a king's ransom annually in avoidable fines due to chronic mismanagement of state programs and departments, and it wastes billions of dollars in outright fraud that goes to con artists who know that California miserably fails to police many of its fattest assistance programs.
Here's a very partial list:
California is one of only two states being fined annually because it missed a 1997 deadline. Curt Child, director of the Dept. of Child Support Services under Gray Davis, last year said automation was "on track" to launch in 2005-2006.
Schwarzenegger needs to push the computer company who landed this huge, lucrative contract to finish a year early, so California can avoid the next horrible $200 million fine.
California was fined $116 million by the feds for these mistakes two years ago, yet reduced its "error rate" only from 17.4 percent to about 15 percent - still the nation's worst - so the feds just fined California another $62.5 million.
The food stamp program has been overseen by a crony of Davis' with no experience running a major government department. Social Services Director Rita Saenz placed much of the blame for California's troubles on workers in Los Angeles County who did not understand their computer system program, so they stopped tracking claims by computer. But Saenz had plenty of time to correct the trouble, if that was the real cause.
Schwarzenegger should bring in a department chieftain from a state with a low Medicaid fraud rate to run California's Medi-Cal program, and he should and steal some top Medicaid fraud investigators from crack investigative units elsewhere in the nation. California's Medi-Cal fraud detection effort is pathetic.
Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger's administration is getting an earful from government workers who are sick of watching their $100,000-per-year state supervisors blow money.
H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the Department of Finance, says the governor's budget includes "proposals for program reforms in a number of areas that will show payoffs now and down the road."
If Schwarzenegger stops the waste, Democrats can hardly complain. Some might even cheer. Experts say a leading cause of poverty among children is the failure of deadbeat parents to pay child support. If Schwarzenegger could launch the deadbeat parent system a year early, he would drag untold numbers of children out of poverty.
That's a very big deal.
Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger must help Democrats save face if they are ever to cut their favored programs.
One way to do that is by giving them a big victory - like releasing non-violent drug offenders from prison and offering them far cheaper and more humane treatment - while assuring that the Dems make cuts in their metastasizing pet programs which often help people far outside the definition of truly needy.
One good example is the Healthy Families program, originally intended to offer health care to children of the poor. But in fact, a family making nearly $50,000 a year can get free health care for its kids, while a family making $60,000 a year pays the taxes to finance it.
Unfortunately, this particular legislature keeps offering all sorts of open-ended taxpayer-funded help and goodies to people who are not close to being poor, such as those who make 250 percent of the poverty rate - even though California is broke.
Schwarzenegger can also help the Dems save face by highlighting examples of Democratic fiscal responsibility breaking out all over California. Many legislators seem barely cognizant of the fact that Democrats, who tend to run the bigger cities, school boards and many counties, are responsibly undertaking deep budget cutting across the state unlike the legislature itself.
Fiscally sharp Democrats like Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown seem primed to help Schwarzenegger. The message should be: "In tough times, California Democrats know how to belt-tighten while being fair, and we know you are capable of the same."
If Schwarzenegger can find accord with Democrats by slashing waste and overspending while protecting the truly needy, by releasing non-violent prisoners, and by illustrating how other Democrats show fiscal restraint statewide, he may find an easier path through the hideous public fights to come.