Tuesday, July 31, 2012

California's Spending Problem or Jim Nielsen's Logic Problem?

Assemblyman Jim Nielsen took to the pages of Redding’s Record Searchlight at the week-end to recite what Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton once called “an old shop-worn mantra”, that the state has a spending problem, not a revenue problem.  Nielsen pointed to the two as-not-yet-connected incidents at Parks and Recreation—the terrible vacation-time payments and the $54 million surplus that was only recently discovered.  Although hiding the surplus—if indeed this is what happened...it’s not impossible that it slipped between layers of bureaucracy—was reprehensible, there is something a little disingenuous in the hyperventilating condemnations issuing from Republican politicians.  After all, Parks and Recreation are only doing exactly what Republicans ostensibly think all institutions should do in the ‘free market’—hoarding money and dodging accountability.  Nielsen’s faux outrage over “the abuse of the sense of pride and love that Californians have for their state parks in an attempt to justify a tax increase” is absurd coming from a party that has as its central platform the privatisation of public spaces and the jettisoning of public responsibility for the maintenance of the entire public sphere.

That’s not Nielsen’s only inconsistency.  The Assemblyman performed a daring leap of logic that might have made even some of his colleagues balk when he suggested that the goings-on at Parks and Recreation are an example of California’s “over-regulated” state.  While I marvel at the nerve it takes to suggest that the remedy to insufficient oversight (the problem at Parks and Recreation) is less regulation, I honestly suspect that Nielsen was adhering to the old Gingrich rule which enjoined Republican politicians to throw in keywords and catch phrases into their every utterance...whether or not they make any sense. 

But, in the spirit of soothing Nielsen’s hysteria, let’s look at what he refers to as the “spending problem”.   Some of Nielsen’s claims about corruption might warrant exploration if he didn’t swerve so abruptly into conspiracy-theory territory, throwing out a series of unsubstantiated claims (“This” [the corruption in the parks service] is a long established, systematic practice in most all agencies”.  Evidence for such a serious accusation with such profound implications?  Nah, not Nielsen.) that smack more of general nastiness than of serious thought or study.

George Skelton pointed out that “as a proportion of Californians’ personal income, total state spending will be only slightly higher in the new budget than it was during Ronald Reagan’s final year as governor in 1974.  Spending out of the general fund—the state’s deficit-plagued main cash box—will be slightly lower than under Reagan”. 

Another problem with Nielsen’s approach is that “waste” is a matter of perspective.  Skelton pointed out the 20% cuts to the K-12 and community college sectors between 2008 and 2012.  To Nielsen and his party, much of our education spending is wasteful.  They believe that a teacher can operate as effectively in a class of 40 students as in one of 20.  And yet their policy is for the state to subsidise more affluent families to have their children privately educated, and to re-invent the wheel through the promotion of charter schools (I can’t think of more spectacular examples of “waste” than Republican Party education policy).

Skelton also reminded readers that “over a four year span, state funding was cut nearly $1 billion annually each at UC and Cal State”.  It’s no secret that Republican legislators view public universities as undeserving of adequate public funding, and view the education that the state’s prized public institutions provide as “elitist”.  The distaste is mutual, and the campus leadership at UC Berkeley is already doing its best to sever ties with the state.  When we lose the state’s flagship institution of higher education to the free market—where it will cater to only those who can afford rather than a broad and representative spectrum of Californians—we’ll have Nielsen and his colleagues to thank. 

State pensions are another favourite target of anti-waste Republicans, but like most of their efforts to cut from the budget, this one is disingenuous.  Pension contributions towards state employees constitute 2.4% of the general fund...hardly enough to make a difference to the overall budget picture even if a few tenths of a percent of that 2.4% could be considered wasteful. 

But let’s pretend, for a moment, that Nielsen (vice chair of the Assembly Budget Committee...a scary though, that) can actually do his sums.  How would he go about running the state?  “Citizens”, Nielsen argued, “would be better served by a Legislature that would spend the majority of its time overseeing the agencies of government rather than introducing and voting on 7,000 bills to create more laws”.  The clue to Nielsen’s big mistake here is in the word ‘legislator’.  Legislators, by definition, legislate.  What exactly would a legislature that spent “the majority of its time overseeing the agencies of government rather than” legislating do?  What would be the point?  Nielsen sounds more confused than anything else, as he clearly doesn’t understand the duties of the respective arms of state government.  The point is, the payout at the park was actually discovered by a combination of internal audit and an investigation by California’s Attorney General—the branches in charge of doing the things Nielsen would like to spend his time doing are, in other words, doing their jobs just fine. 

Nielsen inveighs against the “superficial hearings, cursory analysis and votes on unnecessary laws”, ignoring the fact that these are the legislature’s opportunity to hold his hated “bureaucrats” to account when things go wrong.  Laws are unnecessary or necessary only in the eye of their beholder, and hearings need not be superficial if legislators put the effort into making them relevant.  Nielsen’s problem is that he is a member of a party that is playing a dangerous game in Sacramento—using the powers conferred upon it by our system of minority rule to throw a spanner into the works of our state politics and then pouting when it doesn’t get its way. 

Nielsen might be happy to transform himself into one of 120 bureaucratic gnomes in Sacramento, but most of us elect our legislators to govern, not to behave like a bunch of witless, automaton ciphers.  It seems that the best solution for all parties would be for Nielsen to resign and take up working as an accountant.  The Assemblyman could engage in his obsession for weeding out waste without having to deal with what he apparently regards as the pesky details of doing his job—that is, legislating.  The North State would drop one of the many dead weights it has managed to accumulate around its neck in the form of various knuckleheaded Republican legislators.  California would benefit accordingly.  On second thought, Nielsen’s facts about state spending are so far removed from reality that I don’t think he’d make a particularly good accountant. 

Skelton’s conclusion about the “tax and spend” mantra?  “Sacramento doesn’t have a spending problem.  Its problem is an outdated, roller-coaster tax system that doesn’t generate enough revenue to pay for what California demands and deserves”.  And I’d add to that, a Byzantine political system which makes a mockery of representative democracy given its empowerment of minority parties and the unreconciled imbalance between the powers that voters wield through initiatives and the responsibility they’re willing to take for their actions.  People like Jim Nielsen are all too willing to irresponsibly exploit this state of affairs for their party’s pet ideological agenda.  If he won’t resign to head back to accountant school, Nielsen could at least tear up the pledges and recant the oaths he’s taken to his party’s corporate handlers and get back to serving his real constituents—Californians, who happen to be facing some seriously difficult times at the moment, and deserve better than his ill-informed whining. 

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