SACRAMENTO — Nearly six years after Gov. Schwarzenegger vowed to "blow up the boxes" of state government, he is ready to declare partial victory from the budget package lawmakers will consider today.
Schwarzenegger pushed for numerous changes to "business as usual" in government — from eliminating commissions to killing automatic cost-of-living increases in welfare grants — as part of the deal to close a $26.3 billion shortfall.
"Of course, it's a never-ending process, so we should not think we're finished with it, and we should continue reforming," Schwarzenegger said in a phone interview Wednesday.
In a package of more than two dozen bills, however, containing more than $15 billion in cuts ranging from schools to social services, the changes cited by Schwarzenegger represent only a small slice of the budget-balancing pie.
"The stuff that's being talked about is picking at nits," said Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist. "It's playing around the edges."
Many of the most far-reaching operational changes discussed in recent years, from overhauling the state tax structure to tightening campaign finance laws and imposing strict limits on state spending, were not debated in budget talks.
"They had to focus on details of government programs and how significant the cuts were going to be — it's impossible to do that kind of long-term thinking when you're triaging," said former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, co-chairman of California Forward, a nonpartisan group that is developing government-altering measures for a future ballot.
Pension overhaul set aside
Schwarzenegger, facing opposition from Democratic leaders, tabled his most ambitious proposal, which would have created a two-tier system promising reduced pension benefits to future state workers. The issue will be reconsidered next month.
What Schwarzenegger touts as fundamental operational changes and necessary cost-cutting in the budget deal — from health and human service programs, for example — some criticize as targeting the most vulnerable residents.
"There's a very strong argument that what some people would choose to label as reform, others would argue is cutting off the lifeline to the people who need government services the most," Sragow said.
Schwarzenegger dismisses claims that what he calls reforms are window dressing, touting them as a victory for taxpayers and a strong message about eliminating waste, fraud and abuse.
"It stops the madness of continuously promising people things that we can't deliver," he said. "We have to make sure when we sit here in this Capitol building that we deliver the best services for the tax dollars."
The operational changes would save more than $2.2 billion this year and billions more in the future, according to state finance officials.
The deal would eliminate or consolidate more than a dozen boards, commissions or bureaus — including the Integrated Waste Management Board, a high-paying haven for political appointees.
Besides welfare grants, automatic cost-of-living increases would end for the University of California, California State University, and the court and prison systems.
Rather than allow each county to oversee enrollment in welfare, food stamp and Medi-Cal programs, the proposals call for a more centralized process, which critics contend could jeopardize thousands of county jobs.
The state would sell some assets and property, increase management of health care services for various Medi-Cal recipients, and discourage fraud in the In-Home Support Services program by requiring fingerprinting of providers and recipients.