I have this weird daydream that investigators in some future California will discover high levels of lead in the peach-and-green designer paint in the state Senate and Assembly chambers, at last giving baffled historians the answer to the mysterious behavior exhibited by legislative leaders in the budget crisis of 2003.
Then we'd understand the refusal of Senate leader John Burton and Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson to do their jobs: the sick puppies had brain damage.
If you hang around Sacramento, you cannot tell California has a $26 billion to $35 billion deficit or that things have devolved so horribly that California Controller Steve Westly warns we need $11 billion in quick loans-more than any other state in history-just for operating expenses.
The California Legislature is the drunken engineer of a slow-motion train wreck, but it's acting like business as usual.
Legislators doled out another 2,300 state jobs in February (God knows how many more in March-the numbers aren't in.) Despite the crisis, they've kept to their three-day workweek and refused to make 2003 budget cuts beyond a teensy $3.3 billion. After attacking President George W. Bush for weeks, left-leaning legislators who dominate the statehouse are peering at California polls showing a 70 to 75 percent pro-war public and shamelessly recasting themselves as hawks fighting for homeland security-by raising our taxes.
"They aren't going to come to a budget agreement until September," predicted Hoover Institute research fellow Bill Whalen, formerly with the Pete Wilson administration. "The budget crisis doesn't get much newspaper play, it's not on TV or radio, and we have a little thing called a war. They feel absolutely no pressure to cut spending."
Huey and Dewey, Herb Wesson and John Burton, are squarely to blame.
Wesson declared that the income and other taxes paid to state coffers by April 15 and reported to the Legislature in May "will give us a clearer view of what the problem is," so there's no reason to cut any further. (Reason No. 1: the state is hemorrhaging millions of dollars a week by failing to cut now).
Wesson is great at teaching by poor example. Sacramento has been agog over a story that broke in the Fresno Bee, revealing that Wesson spent more than $350,000 in public monies to hire indefensibly bizarre political aides to serve him.
My favorite hire is former Republican legislator Mike Briggs, who sided with Democrats on key votes last year. Briggs, in what to me seems clearly a payback, is being paid more than $8,000 monthly to advise Wesson on "rodeo and racetrack" issues facing California.
But oops! There are no such issues facing California. Briggs mumbled to a newspaper recently that he's advised Wesson "on farming."
It's "absolutely incredible," says Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia, in whose district Wesson set up an office for one of his new aides. "I don't think the Speaker knows we're in a budget crisis."
Burton is no better. He's the Official Sleepwalker, allowing the Senate to wallow in a swamp of pointless bills as legislators propose detailed programs for which there is no money. But egged on by Burton, legislators don't get it, five months into the train wreck.
"Burton has confided in some people that he has no idea what to do, for the first time in his career," one sympathetic lobbyist told me at a Gray Davis speech.
Poor baby. Get moving, is my suggestion.
The miracle is that 17 percent of the public still approves of the way the Legislature is doing its job, according to a Los Angeles Times poll.
Gov. Gray Davis last December told these dunces that they had until late January to make $10 billion in current-year cuts or the state would go deeper into debt, with spending unabated.
But the Democrats, who hold a big majority of seats in Sacramento, are too close to special interest groups who will back them during the next elections. As a result, groups like the state employee unions easily put a halt to $470 million in trims from the state payroll.
Davis tried to give the Democrats a political out. He suggested they approve a law allowing the governor to make mid-year budget cuts without the Legislature. Governors had that power in California until the law was changed in the early 1980s. But the Democrats refused to accept this solution, which ironically has the backing of every Republican in the Legislature.
The truth is that this Legislature is more politically extreme and out of touch with real people than any group of California legislators in memory. They simply will not do what's necessary to avert this slow motion train wreck.
As proof, I point to the bustle of activity within the Legislature leading up to this week's spring break, having absolutely nothing to do with resolving the budget crisis. It's been a silly season.
Consider clueless San Diego Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe. She has proposed a law allowing teachers' unions to use the public schools for political organizing, political lobbying and political campaigning.
Right now, thank God, it is illegal for unions to use school grounds, school facilities, school equipment and school time to push any political measure or political candidate. Our children need that sort of nonsense like they need their textbooks burned.
But the Assembly seriously debated this for 35 minutes on April 10, right before the Democrats gave a 42-30 backing to Kehoe's stupid plot to turn the schools into rent-free political headquarters for partisan political factions.
If our snoozing California media bothered to cover such tidbits, most Californians would be outraged.
And what of Los Angeles Assemblyman Paul Koretz, who's been very busy trying to end the declawing of cats? It's a beastly practice, yes-but fix it after you've fixed the budget, Paul.
And look at San Leandro's Ellen Corbett, who is strenuously pushing a bill to outlaw the selling of "unweaned birds." Corbett has a powerful job overseeing the Judiciary Committee, yet on April 10 was on the Assembly floor trying hard to stop the selling of unweaned birds.
A lovely issue during a lax political year, but right now, I humbly suggest Corbett get her butt moving regarding the scandal over thousands of small businesses in California who were nearly destroyed by nuisance lawsuits filed by high-pressure lawyers using a loophole in California's unfair-business practice codes.
The scandal, which victimizes mostly immigrant-owned businesses, was exposed by talk show hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou at KFI in Los Angeles. It involves Beverly Hills law firm Trevor Group, which sued 2,000 shops over tiny violations-such as filling out a state form wrong-then successfully demanded small fortunes to drop the suits.
Trevor Group is being pursued by the California Attorney General as a result of the exposé, but the Assembly failed to fix the flawed law that encourages such courtroom shakedowns. It's the sort of law that hurts business in California, which in turn fuels the deficit.
KFI Producer Ray Lopez says, "They just don't care-give zero credit to the Legislature. We got the law firm to drop the 2,000 lawsuits only with help from the Attorney General, state bar and District Attorney. The Assembly was paid off by trial lawyers who want those loopholes to remain."
See how much easier it is to write laws about unweaned birds?
Another doozy is a law proposed by Jenny Oropeza, chairwoman of the Assembly Budget Committee, who during debate seems not to grasp the basics of the budget crisis. Oropeza proposes that 10 schools in California be inspected and judged for how well their teachers demonstrate "cultural competency"-the left's phrase for hewing to politically correct views acceptable in the classroom.
Using information extracted from the ill-fated 10 schools that are inspected, Oropeza proposes to retrain California teachers in how to properly genuflect toward ethnic identity groups-a crowd that just happened to help elect Oropeza to office.
Joe Hicks, civil rights expert and vice president of Los Angeles-based Community Advocates, a human-relations organization, responded this way: "Oooh, the hair stands up on my neck when I hear things like this. With all the problems facing the state, for anyone to be judging teachers in cultural competency-whatever that means-is beyond ridiculousness and really outrageous."
I am starting to depress myself. What is Sacramento praying will happen after the May tax revenue reports come in? Do they think the stock market is going to skyrocket back to 12,000? That taxpayers are going to staple an extra $500 check to their payments to help out?
No. Our leaders are waiting for the crisis to hit Code Red, the point at which something snaps. And when that happens, you can be sure that John Burton and Herb Wesson will present a nice, fat tax package designed with you in mind.