Friday, July 25, 2008

Poor Arnold

(Please note that I am an interested party. A state worker provides the majority of my income.)

Pity the poor Guvernator. He's having problems getting the State Legislature to agree on a budget. So to move the process along he's rumored to have decided to cut the pay of state workers to the federal minimum wage, $6.55 and hour. His argument is that, without a budget, the state coffers will be empty by September. So state workers, whose wages make up about 12% of the budget, will take the hit for the cause. (The worker bees would get their money back once the budget is passed.)

What this means is that all state workers (except the politically powerful Corrections Officers and the California Highway Patrol) will be paid approximately $1048 -- the federal minimum wage minus Social Security and Medicare taxes. Given that the average rent in Sacramento is above $950 a month, most workers could make the rent or mortgage payment and not much else. This means that many state workers would be digging into savings or hauling out the credit card to meet daily expenses. And for lower-wage workers, most of whom are women, and some of whom are single mothers, this would be an economic disaster. A couple of months of minimum wage would drive more than a few into homelessness, and for others, would require months of scrimping to recover.

Now the problem with the state budget is very simple. California's Constitution requires that the budget be passed by a supermajority (2/3) of the Legislature (Assembly and Senate). Both houses are overwhelmingly Democratic, but not quite overwhelmingly enough. So the Republicans hold the budget hostage every year, the Democrats posture, the Democrats then wimp out, and we eventually get a budget. It's never a very good budget, but it's a budget. Remove the 2/3 requirement and we'd have a budget on time most years.

So it's not state workers who are holding up the budget. And it's hard to see how reducing their pay would have the kind of impact on the Legislature that the Gov might be hoping for. The Republicans have never gotten much from state worker unions and therefore don't have much reason to capitulate to stop the Governor's plan. Democratic legislators aren't going to capitulate just because of this, and are enjoying the enhanced anti-Republican sentiment that the pay cut has, not unexpectedly, brought about.

State Controller John Chiang, who could just have pointed out that cutting state worker pay would be a logistical nightmare, said that (a) the state had enough money to pay everyone throught the end of September and (b) he wasn't going to do it. He could have pointed out that it would be a logistical nightmare to change the payroll for 200,000 people and that it would cost millions of dollars in overtime for his staff both to program in the pay cut and then reverse it once the budget was signed. Dude's aiming for higher office.

But what's most interesting is the reaction of our local paper, The Sacramento Bee. Once, long ago in prehistory, the Bee was a pro-union paper. But in the late 1970s the paper began breaking its employee unions and developed a love for the entrepeneurial spirit of the contract worker. (I might add that this process did nothing for the quality of the paper, which has gone downhill ever since.) But then came the foreclosure crisis and, somewhere, somehow, someone at the Bee noticed that, without state workers, Sacramento would go the way of, of, Stockton. (Stockton has the highest foreclosure rate in the country.) Suddenly state workers weren't so bad anymore. They were the backbone of the local economy and, not only was this bad for the workers, but for all the restaurants and shopping venues that are supposed to turn Sacramento into a world class city. (Yes, laughter is appropriate.) It's crass and self-serving of the Bee, but fun to watch.

And it's probably true that the Guvernator is posturing, hoping that by threatening something, anything, that he can get the budget negotiations going. What he really should do is find a couple of Republicans he can "buy off," thus getting the 2/3 vote necessary to pass the budget.

No comments: