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Comptroller blasted for ‘plush’ office

- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 5, 2009

California State Controller John Chiang may be preaching fiscal restraint in the face of the state's budget crisis, but he's practicing something else, according to one Republican legislator.

State Sen. Abel Maldonado has accused Mr. Chiang of spending $2 million on furniture for his "plush" office in the past seven months even as the state controller was issuing IOUs instead of checks for the state's unpaid bills.

"How can the controller justify this action? People are hurting in this state," said Mr. Maldonado in a statement issued Tuesday. "The legislature is trying to fix a $42 billion deficit, which, the controller reminds us, grows larger every day. And yet the controller, who is responsible for our money, feels it is acceptable to take more unnecessary funding for his own office."

Mr. Maldonado, a Republican who represents parts of the Central Valley and Santa Cruz County, added that he "can't even express my disgust with this behavior."

Mr. Chiang fired back with a statement calling Mr. Maldonado's accusations "pathetic" and defending his office's expenditure.

The furniture was purchased as part of an office expansion project that was approved by the state legislature before Mr. Chiang took office in January 2007, he said. The expansion included bringing the office into compliance with workplace safety and disability laws.

Mr. Chiang said he has since cut about $4 million from the project's original $7 million price tag.

"We would urge the senator to check his math, stop grandstanding and get back to work on negotiating a solution to the state's $42 billion budget gap, and the lack of money to fund programs Californians depend on their legislators to provide," Mr. Chiang said.

The heated exchange came as state officials continue to wrestle with the state's seemingly insurmountable budget impasse. State leaders had vowed to have a budget in place by Feb. 1, only to see that deadline go by the wayside as legislators battled over the balance between spending cuts and taxes.

Standard and Poor's on Wednesday downgraded California's bond rating from A+ to A, handing the state the lowest such rating in the nation. Most states are ranked at AAA or AA.

"Our rating recognizes our view of the lack of political progress around the budget negotiations that we believe is serving to exacerbate the state's current and projected cash position," Standard & Poor's said in its report.

The state legislature needs a two-thirds majority to pass a budget, but Democrats want to include tax increases while Republicans have dug in against any such hike. Negotiations continued Wednesday in Sacramento, Calif., as Republicans offered the possibility of bowing on taxes in exchange for loosening labor and environmental regulations on businesses.

Meanwhile, state officials are taking drastic steps to cope with the shortfall. Mr. Chiang announced Monday that the state would withhold $3.5 billion in state tax refunds for 30 days, while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to require state workers to take two-day unpaid furloughs every month in order to save money.

In such a climate, Mr. Maldonado said, the controller should look hard at whether the furniture expenditure is warranted.

"Here is an elected official who is in the press ever talking about cutting services, stopping checks to welfare recipients and issuing IOUs to hardworking Californians," Mr. Maldonado said. "But at the exact same time, he is requesting new office furniture. This disgusting and disingenuous behavior has to end."

Mr. Maldonado also noted that Mr. Chiang accepted a 2.75 percent pay raise in 2007.

The state senator, a well-known penny pincher, has never taken a pay raise in his 10 years in the state legislature. He has introduced two constitutional amendments that would prevent legislators from taking per diems, which pay for their expenses in Sacramento, during a budget stalemate and would prevent them from accepting pay raises when the state is running a deficit.