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Scott Harris: State Budget

A three-point program with penalties might be what officials need to get a budget in place — and on time — every year.

Once again, with the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger failing to uphold their promises, their duty and the law, California — the nation’s largest, most important and most poorly run state — is operating without a budget.

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Scott Harris

The law requires the governor’s signature on an approved budget no later than July 1. For the 16th time in the past 20 years, Sacramento has missed the deadline. With no agreement in sight, maybe we’ll beat the 2002-03 record of no new budget until Sept. 5.

In the meantime, while ineffective and petty politicians play around with our money, California’s credit rating drops, vendors go unpaid and state government is unable to effectively plan because it doesn’t know what its budgets will be. Private businesses and residents hold their breath to see which programs are cut, which loopholes are closed, which taxes are raised, how much money is borrowed and how many creative ways can we mortgage our children’s future against our failures.

The Pew Center on the States recently awarded California a D+ on fiscal management. As we watch Sacramento flounder, again unable and unwilling to carry out its responsibilities, one has to wonder if this is a generous rating. Some want to blame our failures on the size of the state. While we are the largest, other large states (Pennsylvania, B; Florida, B; and even New York, C+) do a better job.

Many will point out, fairly, the initiatives we’ve passed that tie the hands of the Legislature. Others want to blame our ridiculous requirement of a two-thirds majority for the Legislature to pass the budget. We proudly join Arkansas and Rhode Island as the only three states with this requirement.

While these are all contributing factors, the real culprit is politics. Partisan politics — both parties are equally at fault — combined with amazingly powerful special interests virtually ensure budget paralysis. I propose a simple three-point program to motivate Sacramento to have a budget in place — on time — every year.

If Sacramento misses the July 1 budget deadline, the following sanctions would start on July 2 and continue until we have a signed budget:

» The salaries for all California legislators, the governor and their respective staffs would be frozen — never to be recovered. If we don’t have a budget, the people responsible for putting it in place don’t get paid. There would be no retroactive pay, no per diem, no money. You want to get paid? We want a budget.

» No Sacramento politician could accept any campaign contributions. The law has to be written so that no money changes hands between special interests and politicians, or their shell organizations and groups. Again, you want to influence politicians through campaign contributions? Push them to approve a budget.

» All lobbyists and special interests would be banned from any communication with legislators, the governor or their staffs. They could keep running ads in the media. They can work around the clock up until midnight July 1, but starting at 12:01 a.m. July 2, they would be forbidden from direct (in-person, phone, text, mail, etc.) contact with those responsible for the budget.

While we would like to believe that our elected officials and their staffs are motivated by their constituents’ best interests, it is clear to all of us that they are motivated by power and money. Restrict the power, eliminate the money and the motivation to act increases exponentially.

We need draconian penalties for violations of these rules. Our elected officials’ actions clearly show they do not care about the problems they create for us by delaying the budget. The only way to get their attention is to make it very painful for them when they do not do their job — just like what happens to those of us in the real world. They are certainly not motivated by professional responsibility or the law, but the moment their salaries and campaign contributions dry up, we will have their attention — and, more important, a budget.

Scott Harris is a political commentator. Read his columns and contact him through his Web site, www.scottharris.biz, or e-mail him at [email protected]

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