Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Shock Therapy for California

As we wait for Big 5 to complete their negotiations, it's time to ponder what this budget means to the future of the state of California.

This budget, more than any other, is about what kind of future our state will have. Unfortunately for California, the governor is taking his vision straight out of the Milton Friedman playbook.

Friedman recommended a three-part policy prescription of privatization, deregulation, and cuts to social programs. He believed government should remove all rules and regulations standing in the way of business; government should sell everything private business could run at a profit (parks, health care, education, pensions, administration of social services); and government should dramatically cut social services. Economic crises - including huge public debts - have typically been the context where such policies are implemented.

Sound familiar? When this economic crisis hit California, the governor grandly proclaimed the crisis as an opportunity for “reform.” But it is the Friedman model he considers “reform.”

To close our current, record deficit, the governor’s first proposal was to eliminate CalGrants, CalWORKS, Healthy Families and 90% of IHSS. He also proposed closing over 200 state parks. He now proposes new, relaxed procurement rules, despite our state’s dismal experience in the Oracle debacle. He wants to privatize CalWORKS—even though Massachussets’ experience with Maximus was an enormously costly failure—and will use this budget to lay the groundwork. He mounts an all-out assault on state workers through furloughs, salary cuts and layoffs—which will make it easier to privatize their functions. He proposes to take money from cities and counties, ensuring their fiscal crises will deepen and local governments will be unable to provide necessary services.

Californians do not want to sell their state to the highest bidder. But the gun is to our head. The governor revoked authority necessary for the State Controller to borrow emergency cash and the state is now paying its bills with IOUs. The Legislature is hamstrung by the 2/3 vote requirement and term limits. Revenues are falling, while unemployment is rising. California’s credit rating was recently downgraded to just barely above junk bond status. The federal government has refused to provide us with loan guarantees. And, California is poised to borrow yet more from local government to balance its budget, ensuring that our fiscal crisis will deepen in coming years.

To the governor, this crisis represents an opportunity to remake California according to the Friedman model, but not according to the California dream. His proposals, after all, will deepen the economic misery for hundreds of thousands for Californians by throwing low-income women and children on the streets, forcing the elderly and disabled out of their homes into more expensive, private care, make college too expensive for most California families, turn away federal matching funds, close parks, and greatly add to the unemployment rate while depriving cities and counties of the funds they need to function.

How does this serve the interests of ordinary Californians?