Perhaps the governor's new finance director didn't know a member of the media was present in the room, or perhaps he didn't care, but former legislator Steve Peace recently afforded me a stark glimpse into the culture of lying that has turned voters off from politics and is strangling Sacramento.
It was at one of those boring Senate Rules Committee hearings, where the most exciting thing on the agenda was the confirmation of Davis appointees including Peace himself. The well-known Peace, a sometimes brilliant and often controversial San Diego politician who co-authored the state's disastrous deregulation of electricity, was expected to get unanimous approval as new budget czar. And he did.
Known for his inability to stop yacking, Peace needn't have said much to the powerful committee. But, suddenly, committee member Ross Johnson, the perpetually perky Republican from Irvine, piped up. Johnson asked Peace what happened to the request made by Gov. Gray Davis in 2002 of all California state government departments to produce reports on how they would go about cutting 10 percent of their costs to meet the state's budget crisis, if need be.
Johnson's question was an especially keen one since California's $38.5 billion deficit towers over that of other states, making up more than 50 percent of the roughly $60 billion in red ink with which states are grappling.
Yet Sacramento's jobs-oriented Capitol Weekly newspaper shows that from Jan. 1 to April 30, the state hired 10,324 workers amid a Gray Davis-ordered "hiring freeze." The newspaper offers a detailed log of which state jobs are filled, what they pay, who got them and the job title. Of the state's 230,245 workers, 6,300 make more than $100,000-a far higher percentage than in private industry.
The newspaper, owned by self-described liberal Democrat Ken Mandler, has so unmasked the fallacy of a "hiring freeze," during which Davis claims to have "cut 10,000 jobs," that Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio recently accused the publication of a "jihad" against the Davis Administration.
So, naturally, I leaned pretty far forward to hear what Steve Peace had to say to Sen. Johnson about the mystery of the long-repressed reports on cutting state department costs by 10 percent.
That's when Peace admitted an amazing thing. He told the Senate Rules Committee that the reports are so filled with lies about what would have to be cut that the governor has no intention of releasing them in that condition to the Legislature.
"They purposely salt them with what we call Mount Rushmores-we'd have to close Mount Rushmore!-in order to get the media whipped up over things that nobody ever intends to cut out," Peace said grimly. "They purposely put in cuts of very high priority [to society] things we want to protect, while stepping over the low-priority things that actually can be cut.... We need to scrub out those lists of all the Mount Rushmores they have been salted with."
Committee Chairman John Burton, a San Francisco Democrat, upon hearing that California department heads-who earn those $100,000-plus salaries-are big, fat liars, looked as unfazed as if he'd been told that teenagers swear. "I understand that," Burton said permissively, "but I don't understand the reluctance of the governor to share that information."
How does an entire city become so mired in lying that the most powerful people in it spend their time expunging the lies of their overpaid bureaucrats?
For that answer you need only look to the California Legislature and the Davis Administration, which helped teach the bureaucrats everything they know about lying. Look at the Republicans, who promote themselves during this budget crisis as the truth tellers in a sea of conniving Democrats. For weeks, the Republicans have been appalled that the Davis Administration keeps hiring state workers despite the deficit.
In April alone, yet another 2,477 state workers were hired. And I agree with the Republicans-it's enough to make you spit.
But as Mandler told me the other day, the Republicans know very well that "hiring freezes" in California State government are an urban myth, because the Republicans perfected the subterfuge.
"The Pete Wilson Administration had a "hiring freeze' for eight years because the Republicans felt a freeze projected the right message about small government," Mandler notes. But, he says, California under Wilson's "freeze" hired 40,000 to 50,000 state workers every year, to replace workers who left. In addition, Wilson added a net of more than 40,000 government employees over eight years, Mandler says.
See, government jobs are vacated at a rate of about one percent per month, just like at big corporations. Because state jobs are mandated by the Legislature or attached to pork programs legislators refuse to cut back, all vacancies are quietly filled. No hiring "freeze" ever materializes. The Republicans and Democrats understand with great clarity that "hiring freezes" are fake and are launched largely to placate the media.
"The political parties use the term "hiring freeze' just for you guys in the media business, to give you a headline that shows something is being done," says Mandler. "Insiders know that in fact, nothing is being done in a hiring freeze."
The Republicans are hardly alone in their disingenuous shock. Look at the dishonesty of Steve Peace himself, tattling on bureaucrats for lying about the "Mount Rushmores" they'd have to cut to save 10 percent. Not two hours before giving that testimony, Peace was telling a whopper to reporters about whose fault it was that California has the fattest state deficit in this quadrant of the Known Universe.
Peace said the "most not-talked-about" cause for our sudden problems was the shift of power in Washington in 1993 to "Southern Democrats, Southern Republicans and Southern presidents." Beginning with Bill Clinton, he says Washington has been robbing California of income taxes and spending them on the South.
I guess Peace forgot that California enjoyed a $12 billion surplus four years ago, and then Gray Davis got elected and promptly failed to veto huge, permanent, neo-Great Society programs that the heavily left-leaning California Legislature financed with a boom in the stock market that could not last.
From 1999 to 2002, I observed with interest as the weak-willed Davis warned the Legislature not to bring such big, shakily financed health, education and welfare programs to him. But then Davis signed the bills to assure himself campaign funding from the high-pressure unions and others who wanted the new or expanded programs.
The ethos of dishonesty in Sacramento springs in part from a rationale that asks: Why shouldn't I rely on lying when the Governor himself is a master of fancy embroidery?
For example, just before Peace artfully blamed Bill Clinton for the California Legislature's rampant overspending, I heard Davis promise that a one-half-cent sales tax he included in his massive tax increase proposal will be dedicated solely to paying back $10.7 billion in deficit-financing bonds. Davis vowed that when this $10.7 billion bond to pay for current overspending is repaid in five years, the new tax automatically disappears.
Nice try, Guv.
In fact, the fine print proposed by Davis says nearly the opposite. It says the Legislature can refinance the bonds and keep the tax forever. H.D. Palmer, a budget expert with the Senate Republican Caucus, says the special bonding authority Davis wants to create "could extend the tax by getting a majority vote of the Legislature instead of the two-thirds" required by law.
With Sacramento controlled overwhelmingly by liberal Democrats-who after five months of shameful discussions have not significantly slowed their overspending-we have to assume our new sales tax will be made permanent.
We in the public never seem catch on. As I write this, the entrenched powers have begun to issue almost daily Mount Rushmore alerts. And we keep buying it. Did you hear the one about Davis wanting to save $44 million by no longer requiring public bodies to post their agendas? The media went positively ape, but now Davis is "rethinking it" due to the awful media reaction.
As if Davis and his platoon of advisors hadn't anticipated exactly that reaction. Davis cleverly achieved what I see as his real goal: convincing media holdouts that his massive new tax plan is so non-debatable that if fat taxes aren't approved, cuts will be so deep the public could lose their basic rights to public information.
And did you hear the one about Davis wanting to charge $5 to check out certain library books? Newspapers went nuts, and Davis promptly dropped that particular proposal to close Mount Rushmore. Again, mission accomplished-media put into a frenzy of pro-tax declarations.
If this were a game, it might be fun. But by my estimate, a typical household with two cars and two decent jobs is going to pay $1,500 to $3,000 more per year to California under Gray Davis' tax-but-barely-cut plan.
For that kind of dough, we could pick a lovely spot in the Sierras and carve our own Mount Rushmore.