As if the state budget process wasn’t brutal enough, Arnold Schwarzenegger used the “blue pencil” last week to make even further cuts in social programs – to the tune of $700 million. After the legislature went along with cuts in public transportation and drug treatment, Arnold took another $55 million out of mental health treatment for the homeless – effectively castrating state law. A Governor who says he wants to pass universal health care cut over $427 million from the state’s Medi-Cal program, and in a gift to his friends in the insurance industry, $6.3 million to help Californians get cheap prescription drugs. He says it was the only way Republicans in the State Senate would vote for the budget. But with Dick Ackerman’s bad faith tactics that held our state hostage for 52 days, did Arnold really have to keep such a Faustian bargain? And with the process now behind us, will he aggressively push to nix the 2/3 vote requirement to pass a state budget, and prove his “post-partisan” credentials?

When it comes to passing a budget, California’s Constitution is beyond absurd. Not only are we one of only three states to require a super-majority vote of the state legislature, but the Governor then has the right to cut out any expenditures in the budget – a practice known as “blue-pencil.” The state legislature can only override these cuts by a two-thirds vote. The U.S. Supreme Court threw out a similar “line-item veto” at the federal level, but California has its own rules that it can live by.

The Governor cut $55 million from mental health, eliminating a six-year old housing program that serves 4,700 adults with severe mental disabilities – all of whom were homeless and frequently hospitalized or incarcerated. Participants in the program have reduced their number of days spent homeless by 67%, increased the number of days working full-time by 65%, and reduced the number of days incarcerated by 72%.

“This is a program that works, that saves the state money in incarceration costs and that humanely treats a population that usually gets short shrift in Sacramento,” said State Senator Darrell Steinberg, who authored the legislation. Schwarzenegger replied that there’s still money from Proposition 63 – the 2004 ballot measure that taxed millionaires to fund mental health programs.

But Prop 63 was intended to supplement existing funding, not to replace it. When it comes to mental health funding, the Governor effectively robbed Peter to pay Paul.

Of the $700 million that Schwarzenegger cut out of the budget, 75% of the money came from Health and Human Services – with $427 million coming out of the state’s MediCal program. It’s ironic, given that the Governor says he wants to pass universal health care in California, that when given the choice of what cuts to make he cut health care.

Arnold cut $6.3 million from the California Discount Prescription Drug Program – a project that helps low-income Californians buy affordable prescription drugs. The health insurance lobby, which gave $5 million to Schwarzenegger’s campaign, had strongly opposed this program because it hurts their bottom line.

I could go on forever, but you get my point. To read more details about the Governor’s cuts, click here. But what’s most galling is what he chose not to cut out of the budget – a $45 million tax break for yacht, private plane and recreational vehicle owners.

The Governor was supposed to sign the budget that passed the State Assembly last month – which cut $1.2 billion in public transit, slashed drug treatment programs and delayed cost-of-living adjustments for SSI recipients. But then the Senate Republicans decided to hold up the budget just because they could. Only after Arnold pledged to cut another $700 million from the budget did the right-wing extremists end their 52-day tantrum.

Senate Minority Leader Dick Ackerman, who led the standoff, deserves all the outrage coming his way. But Schwarzenegger never promised him where the cuts would come from, at least not publicly. He could have either refused to let the Senate Republicans blackmail him and break his promise – or he could have cut $700 million out of the budget in places that didn’t hurt the most vulnerable. Since Ackerman is a yacht enthusiast, he could have stuck it to him by eliminating his $45 million tax break.

For a Governor who claims to be “post-partisan” and has co-opted Democratic issues in a very blue state, Schwarzenegger showed his true Republican colors. When the Senate Republicans finally backed off the budget last week with minimal changes, commentators ridiculed Ackerman for having gotten so little out of the standoff. But with the Governor’s “blue-pencil” cuts, we know that the right wing had the last laugh.

The state Constitution allowed Schwarzenegger to make these drastic cuts, but it also allows the state legislature to override them with a two-thirds majority. While I dread the prospect of going back to the Senate Republicans to override the Governor, these cuts are so disastrous that we cannot let Arnold get away with it. Publicly humiliating Arnold and the Republicans is what it will take to prevail.

For starters, you can do what L.A. blogger David Dayen did – fax the following
certificate of appreciation to the office of Senate Minority Leader Dick Ackerman. And stay tuned with the California Progress Report, California Majority Report, and for more ideas.

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