- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009

OPINION/ANALYSIS:

California is the beta state, where everything new is tried and then exported, true or not. Rap, rock, lavender love, student riots, Arianna Huffington, hot rods and the Hula Hoop. Ronald Reagan and the tax revolt. The illusion that you can have it all, and somebody else will pay for it. This week California’s voters offered a view of what happens when big government finally grinds to a noisy halt. Barack Obama could take note.

The state of California, alas, is busted. Broke. Down and out in Beverly Hills. Empty pockets in the sunshine. The Golden Gate, once the magnet that sent millions of Americans rattling westward, first in covered wagons, later in jalopies or “riding the thumb,” opens now only to the prospect of the bankruptcy court.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger put five proposals to “solve” the state’s $21.3 billion budget deficit on the ballot for a decision by Californians, a bilious stew of new and “enhanced” taxes, some called taxes and other taxes called “user fees.” Californians voted down all five of them. The only ballot initiative to survive, the sixth of the day, was a mandate to prevent elected officials from helping themselves to raises during times of “fiscal distress,” or what the rest of us call “hard times,” or times such as these. You can be sure that this one was not put on the ballot by elected officials, because on the sobering morning after the state Citizens Compensation Commission promptly approved cutting salaries of elected officials by 18 percent.

The vote was not close. All five government-issue proposals were knocked down by margins of 2 to 1. The proposal to limit raises to elected officials was approved by almost 3 to 1. But the effect of this slap in the face of the elected officials, accompanied by a swift kick in the pants, was only semi-salutary. The Democrats who control both houses of the state Legislature said the right things.

“Whatever needs to be done, you do it,” said the speaker of the assembly. “We’re going to put everything on the table.” Her counterpart in the state Senate glumly agreed: “The people were telling us, ‘Don’t bring this problem to our doorstep.’ We’re going to cut. We’re not shying away from that.” What else could they say?

But there was quickly a move put afoot to show uppity voters a thing or two. Some of the pols think the solution to the California dilemma is to fix it so the voters will no longer have a say about the when, why and wherefore of raising taxes. California’s scheme of referendums, enabling citizens to put questions on the ballot, is enshrined in a state constitution adopted 130 years ago, long before political officeholders came to imagine themselves as American royalty, tempted to rule by decree when they can get away with it.

The Public Policy Institute, which describes itself as “a nonpartisan polling organization,” quickly stepped up with a poll that it says shows that 2 out of 3 Californians want to “alter” the state constitution. “The majority of Californians say the state is headed in the wrong direction,” the president of the institute told the Los Angeles Times. “I think we could be at a crossroads here. People in California don’t feel they have the government we need in the 21st century.” But nothing in the results of actual voting suggests that such a think-tank prescription is what angry Californians have in mind for direction-changing.

Everybody expects to be “stimulated” now, and Mr. Schwarzenegger is counting on the feds to bail him out. He fled California on the day of the vote to be in Washington as part of the backdrop for President Obama’s announcement that he will henceforth design cars for Detroit, to mandate fuel economies for which there is no technology available short of putting us all in cute little cars built by Fiat.

The governor, clearly affronted by the public anger, retreated to the traditional threat of cornered pols to close the orphanages and cancel Christmas. Specifically, he announced plans to terminate 5,000 of the 235,000 state employees, terminate spending for schools by $5 billion, terminate state-owned real estate, terminate a shortfall by borrowing $2 billion from city and county governments, terminate eligibility for certain health care programs, terminate the prison sentences of 19,000 illegal immigrants and send them home and terminate the residence of 23,000 state-prison inmates and transfer them to county jails.

That’s a lot of terminating, even for The Terminator. When chickens straggle home, somebody has to make room for the roost.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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