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Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Governor's Move: Without Conscience

In case you missed it this week, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger stunned even veteran politicians by announcing that in light of a budget impasse, he would be cutting the salary of all state workers to the FEDERAL minimum wage of $6.55 per hour.

I do not usually cover state politics, but this is one of the most cynical and heartless political moves that I have seen in politics. And unfortunately I have seen a lot of bad decisions in politics at the federal, state, and local level.

But it's really unclear what this accomplishes. First, you are punishing a group of people who largely are innocent bystanders in this budget battle. State workers of course come in a large range, but what does the guy who mans the DMV desk, the woman who collects your $4 at a toll booth on the Bay Bridge, or the guy who mans the printing press for the state printer, have to do with the budget? These people get $30,000 maybe at best $40,000 per year, they have mortgage payments, car payments, have to buy gasoline, have to feed their families... what in the hell is the governor thinking? He's playing politics with people's lives. People whose lives have nothing to do with his political agenda or his political battle. These people cannot afford to live on $6.55 per hour.

Second, State Controller John Chiang said that the state has plenty of cash to pays its bills through September. And if the budget were not in place then, the bills would go to the private credit market.

As Sacramento Bee Dan Weintraub wrote on Thursday:
"It will make him seem mean-spirited and autocratic, which are traits that helped bring him down in 2005 and, if associated with him again, will undermine his ability to win public support for his point of view.

The logic behind the move is also either faulty or phony. Schwarzenegger says he needs to save cash so the state can operate without borrowing more if there's no budget into September. If he is sincere in that belief, then what's the point? Why force state workers to sacrifice just to give the Legislature more time to debate? What they need is pressure, not a way to relieve that pressure by improving the state's cash flow situation. Which is why the more likely reason behind the move is that Schwarzenegger wants to use state workers to ratchet up the pressure on legislators to get it done."
Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, said on Thursday that Schwarzenegger's proposal caught Democrats by surprise.
"I was with the governor twice yesterday... He didn't even bring this up. So if he wanted to leverage me, you know, it's like you put a gun to your head and say hey, I want your attention now."


"I don't know why he did it. It was certainly unnecessary. It's incendiary. You know, he is really trying to incite the wrong people. But if he wants a fight, he's going to have a fight ... this is an act of war. It's a declaration. He is doing war on the people of this state who make California run. So whoever advised him ought to be in an unemployment line right now. If he thought of it himself, shame on him."
The Senate President became even more indignant making fun of the Governor for his "brigade of 13 armed escorts." He mocked the Governor for being out of touch with the average Californian.

If there is one thing that the Governor has succeeded in doing, it is giving Democrats in Sacramento an actual backbone.

Democrats like Senator Dean Florez and Controller John Chiang may emerge as heroes in this fight.

Controller John Chiang issued a statement on Thursday:
"[The State Supreme Court] has never addressed the legality of withholding full salaries versus paying minimum wage (and) the governor's proposed executive order would only invite more extensive and expensive litigation. Worse, should the courts find that withholding full pay is illegal, the state will be liable for treble damages."
Sen. Dean Florez:
"I don't think it is wise for the governor to use working men and women as hostages for the state budget... I think it shows weakness on his part as a negotiator. The men and women who do the hard work that keeps our state running deserve their full pay."
The Controller is refusing to pay state workers minimum wage in defiance of the Governor's executive order. Controller Chiang got support yesterday from the Legislative Counsel, which said in an opinion requested by Sen. Florez that the governor cannot compel the controller to reduce workers' pay.

According to Legislative Counsel Diane Boyer-Vine, the exectuive order could not force Chiang to start paying state workers the minimum wage in August. Her opinion citied cases where the courts found that the controller may wield his authority independent of the governor.

It appears then that Controller John Chiang and Senator Dean Florez will force the Governor to go to court to enforce his executive order where Chiang and Florez believe they will prevail.

Florez told the Sacramento Bee yesterday:
"Florez said he hopes the legal opinion will cause Schwarzenegger to "reverse his actions and apologize."

"We want to avoid any kind of lawsuit between the controller and the governor," said Florez, who added that such a suit would be a "huge waste of energy, resources and time."

The paycheck reduction idea was "very repulsive," said Florez, who said the move showed "the governor at his lowest point."

"There are a lot of ways to negotiate a better budget, rather than taking hostage state workers and forcing a minimum wage statute on them because he thinks he's king and he can do it," Florez said."
The Governor's executive order is an utter disgrace motivated by politics and probably malice toward state workers who have rebuked his proposals in the past. There are plenty of ways to resolve the budget dispute. This is hardly one of them. This will end up another black mark on the Governor's record, reminiscent of what happen in 2005. Back then, the Governor overreached on state ballot initiatives but was able to retreat in the face of weak opposition in the 2006 to prevail in his reelection bid. This time, he faces no reelection big, but his ability to backtrack may be minimal. He may have harmed his chances to seek another office such as Senator.

For the state workers, it appears that for now they will not get $6.55 per hour. The powers that be will fight that order and force a lengthy court battle. In the meantime, the budget will be resolved as it usually is, poorly and late. The state's system does not work well and there is almost no way to change it.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting