For years now, whenever a lawmaker suggested trimming the National Parks Service budget, the bureaucracy would immediately propose closing the Washington Monument. Visions of angry tourists consoling broken-hearted children quickly vanquished the ardor of the most committed budget watchdogs.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is obviously employing that strategy when he proposes releasing 22,000 dangerous felons — including burglars, identity thieves and embezzlers — onto California streets and closing some of the most popular beaches in the state, all in the name of “across-the-board” cuts.

“Across-the-board” cuts are the most stupid conceivable way to make budget reductions, because they treat the highest of state priorities the same as the lowest. Instead of making 100-percent cuts in utterly indefensible expenditures like tuition subsidies for illegal aliens and a vast array of duplicative or obsolete state programs, Schwarzenegger proposes throwing the prison doors open.

Yet he refuses even to consider the obvious question: Why has the average annual cost of housing a prisoner climbed to $42,000 from $32,000 during this administration, while Florida spends only $19,000 and even the federal prison system costs just $25,000?

Last April, Schwarzenegger ignored pleas to save $7 billion in prison construction costs and $1 billion in annual operating expenses by contracting out 50,000 prison beds — a common practice by other states including Florida, Michigan, New York and Texas. Instead, he approved a law that very cleverly makes it impossible for California to contract out more than a few thousand beds.

So just who does Schwarzenegger think he’s kidding? Californians have given him an entire finance department to prepare serious budget reforms, and yet we’re expected to believe that a preposterous threat to release thousands of dangerous felons is the only solution to the state’s run-away spending.

Indeed, according to his own Department of Finance, this year the state government will consume the largest portion of your earnings in its history, $9.58 out of every $100 of personal income. When he was recalled, Gov. Gray Davis was spending just $8.78 out of every $100.

During the Pat Brown administration in the 1960s, state government spent less than $6.76 of every $100 that people earned. Those were hardly lean years: California had no trouble housing all of its inmates, operating legendary state beaches while also providing the finest university system in the country, the finest highway system in the world, abundant affordable housing, and water and electricity so cheap that many communities didn’t measure the stuff.

The budget that Schwarzenegger signed in August authorized general fund spending of $103 billion. Davis’ last budget weighed in at $78 billion. During the recall campaign, Schwarzenegger never suggested that Davis’ budget was so slender that he’d have to flood California’s streets with convicts. On the contrary, he called that budget “bloated.”

Despite Schwarzenegger’s assurance that his new budget doesn’t raise taxes, it in fact includes at least a half-billion dollars of new levies, including $125 million a year on homeowner’s insurance policies and $385 million a year on vehicles. In addition, he is sponsoring a staggering $14 billion annual tax to support his socialized health plan. This would shatter the current record for tax increases set in 1991, when a $7 billion hike broke the back of California’s economy and produced two years of billion-dollar declines in state revenues.

Nor has Schwarzenegger shaken his reliance on Enron-style accounting. The new budget still depends on borrowing an additional $3.3 billion to pay for ongoing programs, suspending $1.5 billion in scheduled debt repayments, and using $2 billion in accounting gimmicks to claim estimated future revenues as part of the current year’s receipts.

The glaring and inescapable conclusion is that this is not the serious and carefully considered budget the crisis demands and the public expects, but rather a ham-handed attempt to employ the Washington Monument strategy to excuse four years of fiscal mismanagement.

California deserves better.

State Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, represents southern Santa Barbara County in the 19th District.