January 27, 2006

Commentary:

What a difference a year makes

by Fabian Núñez
California Assembly Speaker  

 

The budget that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger unveiled last week represents a radical departure from his proposal a year earlier. Out: slights to the state’s public employees and the shelving of transportation projects. In: a warm embrace of the Democratic legislative agenda.

The Governor’s shift reflects a keen grasp of the obvious: that last year’s political agenda was rejected in total by the voters in last November’s costly and combative special election. That the Governor gets this is a good thing.

And Democrats once again are poised to engage the Governor on the real challenges facing our state. For starters, we’re pleased that the Governor is making a splash about rebuilding the state’s aging infrastructure, joining an effort that was launched in both houses of the legislature last year.

  The new Kumbaya spirit in Sacramento has lead some to speculate that the Governor’s lurch back to the center has erased all distinction between Schwarzenegger Republicans and the Legislative Democrats. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. On the “kitchen table” issues that matter most to California’s middle-of-the-road electorate, there remain important differences between the Governor and us. For example:

- Education –  Funding to lift California from its near-cellar ranking in state aid to schools continues to be our top priority, and Democrats will continue to press the Governor to keep his promise to our schools. His proposed increase for this year is simply a down payment on what our schools are owed.

- Prescription drugs – Democrats will send legislation to the Governor’s desk allowing Californians to join 11 other states (including several with Republican governors) to buy less expensive prescription drugs from Canada.  The Governor said last month he favors the concept, but wants to wait until the Republican Congress gives our state the green light. We believe California shouldn’t wait. 

- Raising the minimum wage – The Governor, who has vetoed increases for the past two years, wants a modest increase with no guarantees for future increases as living expenses rise. Sadly, the Governor is a day late and a dollar short. Democrats favor allowing the minimum wage to be adjusted with increases in the cost of living, just like Social Security benefits.

- Protecting seniors and the disabled – Despite soaring revenues and proposed increases for dozens of other programs, the Governor’s budget proposes to deny more than 2.4 million elderly and disabled Californians their cost of living increase. We think that’s unconscionable in the richest state in the world’s richest nation.

To be sure, none of these differences are insurmountable. As long as we uphold the central values we stand for – including justice, equity and opportunity – Democrats are willing to meet the governor more than half way to do what’s best for all our citizens.

In doing so, neither party should take its eyes off the prize: the elimination of the state’s nagging structural deficit. Even though revenues are soaring, we need to allocate these funds in a careful and meaningful way. We should begin by postponing the funding of Prop 49, the after-school initiative.

Voters approved the initiative, championed by the Governor, at a time when the state’s coffers were overflowing with revenues from the dot-com boom. But as the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst points out, now is not the time to start spending $428 million a year on a new programs. We must first get our fiscal house in order. Instead of making massive new investments in untested programs, let’s take care of the aged, blind and disabled. Or expand health coverage to every child in California, which can be done for half the price of Prop 49.

We are fortunate to find ourselves in a strong budget position for 2006-07. It gives all of us — Democrats and Republicans alike – some room to work together without unnecessary and unproductive partisan division. We’re prepared to do just that. And we expect the Governor to do the same.

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