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Sacramento Update: Water Hearings, Prison Plan Rejected

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Aired 10/27/09

What's expected to come out of the water legislation hearings taking place in Sacramento this week? Why did a panel of federal judges reject California's prison population reduction plan? We speak to Marianne Russ about the top stories in the state capitol.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger holds a press conference after the legislature successfully passed a solution to the state's budget problem July 24, 2009 in Sacramento.
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Above: California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger holds a press conference after the legislature successfully passed a solution to the state's budget problem July 24, 2009 in Sacramento.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. After IOUs, furloughs, and deep cuts in state services, the word around Sacramento right now is that the state is still in very bad financial straits. In fact, some legislators are talking about another $20 billion deficit coming up for California’s budget in 2010. The fiscal nightmare the state is living through has also become a political nightmare for Governor Schwarzenegger. The cuts he’s approved to close the state budget deficit are unpopular and some are now saying they may not be working. Are the methods California is using to solve the budget crisis fair and fiscally sound? Who is really paying the price of closing these billion dollar budget shortfalls? Joining us to discuss the politics of budget cuts is our own political correspondent, Gloria Penner. Good morning, Gloria.

GLORIA PENNER (KPBS Political Correspondent): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Now a Field Poll came out earlier this month with some bad news for Governor

Schwarzenegger. Tell us about it, Gloria.

PENNER: His approval rating is the lowest of any California governor in 50 years except maybe for Gray Davis. Right now, the Field Poll shows him with a 27% approval rating, that is definitely the poorest of his tenure in the – and, as I said, the lowest in 50 years. His fall is from a high approval rating of 65% in August, 2004. His disapproval rating now is 65%.

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

PENNER: So it equates, what they loved before, they don’t love anymore. And, you know, he’s not so popular with some of the legislators either. This morning, the news from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia was about the governor’s message that he really didn’t hide but it was attached to a veto letter that he sent to San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who heckled the governor during his speech the governor gave at a Democrat – a fundraiser. The governor apparently felt he got even by stringing together the first letter of each line of his veto message so that they became a common four-letter vulgarity followed by the word ‘you,’ as one article delicately described his technique.

CAVANAUGH: So people are not getting along with each other up in Sacramento apparently.

PENNER: Sounds like it.

CAVANAUGH: What are the reasons, though? Have there any reasons been given as to why the governor’s poll numbers have fallen the way they have?

PENNER: Yeah, well, he could be the one getting blamed for the hard times. The recession just goes on and on and the government can’t seem to do anything about it. And, after all, he’s the leader of the California government. Over the summer, he had this face-off with the legislators in a very tense budget battle and, in the end, he signed this $92 billion general fund budget that cut some $15 billion in state services and that resulted in thousands of state employees losing their jobs. And now, as you said, we’re hearing that we could have another $20 billion shortfall next year. You know, we’ve been through recessions before but we have not seen this level of frustration or criticism and a greater loss of confidence than we’ve seen right now. He campaigned—I think this was it—he campaigned on being a man of action but now he really appears powerless. I talked about his low approval rating, it’s actually just a bit better than that low mark that was recorded by Governor Gray Davis just before he was recalled. And then there was another recession when Republican Governor Pete Wilson was in office, and his rating was 33%, six points higher than Schwarzenegger. So at this point it really looks as though it’s a stunning erosion of Schwarzenegger’s popularity.

CAVANAUGH: Well, the legislators aren’t doing too well either. The same Field Poll was bad news for them as well. What were their numbers?

PENNER: Well, the numbers show voter unhappiness with state legislators. Seventy-eight – Get these numbers. They’re incredible. 78% of respondents said that lawmakers were falling down on the job. This was the lowest rating in the history of the Field Poll. And the poll also shows the legislature to be held in even less esteem than the governor. Only 13%, 13%, approved of the job the legislature is doing compared with 78% that disapprove. It just shows that California voters are – have this growing malaise. They’re distressed by the state’s inability to throw off chronic problems made worse by the recession. The poll expresses voter anger and worry and calls for deeper changes in California’s very complex political system. I think we are going to see on the ballot in 2010 ballot propositions that reflect how the voters feel. It’s going to be crammed with proposition to make those political changes.

CAVANAUGH: Well, as you mentioned, Gloria, one of the big reasons for this decline may very well be the large cuts in services that the governor and the legislature had to make or, well, they chose to make rather than raising taxes to cover the budget shortfall last summer. Give us an overview, Gloria, about how that’s working out. For instance, the really major cuts that’s been made to higher education in the state.

PENNER: Yeah, this is true. The higher education system, it’s being hit by $2 billion in cuts and the schools that make up the system, of course, are the University of California, California State University and the community colleges. So they’re already raising fees—not popular. They’re dropping courses, very not popular. Slashing enrollment, that’s disastrous to whole groups of people. And compelling employees to take unpaid furlough days. We’ll talk about that a little later. In addition, the class sizes are up, the library hours are down, and plans for new programs and new schools are on hold. Let me give you an example. You know, we’re here at San Diego State University and we got this e-mail from President Weber who – he sent it to alumni and friends. He said as a direct result of the state budget cuts—it’s $571 million—to the university system, California State University is reducing enrollment statewide by 40,000 students. 40,000 won’t be able to get into the system. At San Diego State, it’s going to be, this year, 4618 students, 1850 fewer this fall and then another 2700 next fall. And, you know, already we’re seeing reaction in the community. And according to his e-mail, the university rejected 22,000 qualified students this fall semester because of budget cuts. I’ve got tell you one very brief little story. The state budget crisis hit this busload of future college students from Whittier High School who were going to Cal State Fullerton for sort of a tour, an orientation, the kind of things that kids do when they consider their school. And they made all these arrangements, they were going to be gone for three days at great expense. When they got there, the campus was empty. The walkways were empty, the parking garage was empty. I mean, when a parking garage is empty that’s something. The bookstores were quiet. There were very few classes on campus and the reason was that this was a three-day furlough period…

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

PENNER: …for the employees at the university. And so it hit them hard. They got a good sense of what it was like. They learned something about government. One said, it’s all corrupt, top to bottom. These are things that just can’t be changed. That’s a high school student.

CAVANAUGH: Wow. That – Learning the bitter realities of politics at an early age. Tell us a little bit more about the furlough that the – the ordered furlough for state workers. I believe that that’s actually even being challenged in court.

PENNER: It is. It is actually. It started out as two furlough days, cutting 10% of state workers’ pays and then it grew to three furlough days or 14%. And it is being challenged in court. But a recent study by the Berkeley Center for Labor Research said that it really doesn’t save much at all, that it – the offset by reduced revenue, increased cost, and the study concluded—this is an amazing conclusion—that the – that three days will save $236 million. If they just furlough them for one day, it would save $256 million. So it would be better to just furlough them one day rather than three days. And the court challenge, already the State Compensation Insurance Fund that sued, the employees of that, they won a victory. So they – the final ruling declared that they were entitled to back pay plus interest. And there are five pending lawsuits changing the legality of the governor’s imposed furloughs. I think he is also suing back.

CAVANAUGH: And – But at the same time, wasn’t there a study that was released recently about some state workers still raking in overtime pay?

PENNER: An unbelievable study. While some state employees are taking pay cuts and really feeling it, some workers are getting huge amounts in overtime pay. For example, a Napa nurse raked in more than $700,000 in overtime pay over five years. The California state government paid $2.1 billion in employee overtime from fiscal 2003 to 2008. A total of $1.33 billion went to the California Highway Patrol. And it goes on and on. So, yes, there is overtime and much of this, they say, has to do with some of these facilities actually need 24 hour staffing and they cannot do without and, therefore, people have to be on overtime to make up for those people who are furloughed.

CAVANAUGH: So if the current things, the current budget cutting ideas of furloughing and so forth are not exactly working out the way the legislature and the governor planned, might they look at this pending budget deficit coming up next year and actually bite the bullet and think about raising some taxes?

PENNER: Oh, you know what it takes to raise taxes in the state of California. The governor can’t do it unless two-thirds vote of the legislature and that just won’t happen. We have such a partisan legislature. There are initiatives being prepared that would change the system. For example, change the two-thirds vote of the legislature to only three-fifths. But that won’t happen before his term is up and certainly will not happen before next July when the new fiscal year goes into effect. There may be one way of bringing in some money.

CAVANAUGH: The – I want you to talk about that, but we have a caller on the line who has his own suggestion as well. Let’s hear from Willie in San Diego. Good morning, Willie. Welcome to These Days. What’s the solution to our budget problems?

WILLIE (Caller, San Diego): Hey, thanks for taking my call. I’m a San Diego native and a big proponent of the definition of insanity, which Albert Einstein said is doing the same thing over and over and over and expecting a different result.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

WILLIE: As far as the northern part of the state is far, far left and it seems like the majority of the southern part of the state is far, far right. They’re so diametrically opposed. I would just think the only solution would be to split the state in two and have a Northern California and a Southern California, and create the 51st state. And that way, you know, the north can run things their way and the south can run things our way.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Willie. Thanks so much for that. So that’s one solution.

PENNER: It is.

CAVANAUGH: Cut us in half.

PENNER: Cut us in half. The only problem is that, really, the inland part of California is the really conservative part and the coastal is much more liberal. So if we cut off San Francisco and mixed them up, let’s say, with San Bernardino, you’d still have liberal and conservative.

CAVANAUGH: You’d still have a stalemate.

PENNER: Yeah, and besides think of the water issue. The north would be very happy to be cut off from the south. They could keep all their water supplies and not have to send them to us.

CAVANAUGH: There is another suggestion that’s been bandied about to increase the money coming into the state coffers. Tell us about that, Gloria.

PENNER: Yeah, actually it came from the same Democratic Assemblyman, Tom Ammiano, that – who is the butt of the mayor’s veto message that I spoke about earlier.

CAVANAUGH: The governor’s veto message.

PENNER: I mean – Yes…

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

PENNER: …he’s the governor. Yeah, he’s not going to run for mayor. He introduced legislation last month that would legalize marijuana and allow the state to regulate and tax its sale, a move that could mean billions of dollars for the state. It is California’s biggest cash crop, $14 billion a year in sales. It dwarfs the state’s second largest agricultural commodity which is milk and cream. And the state’s tax collectors estimate the bill would bring in about $1.3 billion dollars in revenue. So some people are really taking a look at that. In fact, one Orange County Superior Court judge estimates that legalizing pot and ceasing to arrest, prosecute and imprison non-violent offenders could save the state another $1 billion a year. So, you know, that’s one opportunity maybe.

CAVANAUGH: It might be easier to pass a budget than to get that through.

PENNER: I think you’re right.

CAVANAUGH: Gloria, thank you so much.

PENNER: You’re welcome, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Gloria Penner is KPBS’ political correspondent. She is also the host of Editors Roundtable and San Diego Week. You can read her blog, Political Fix, at KPBS.org. Coming up next, a conversation with a Pakistani peace activist as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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