Deficit only real issue in guv race

As much as voters may want to hear candidates for governor wax rhapsodic on the intricacies of prison overcrowding, global warming and pension reform, only one subject will dominate the race — that is, if anybody’s paying attention.

It’s the economy, stupid, and it will be until 2014 and beyond.

A new legislative analyst report released this week paints a picture for California that definitely does the word “grim” justice. Next year, the state faces a $21 billion budget deficit, $23 billion after that, to be followed by fiscal shortfalls of $20 billion and $18.4 billion. For those keeping score at home, that’s nearly $83 billion during the next four years.

“Our forecast captures our best estimates at this time regarding the state’s fiscal condition,” the report says. “Yet, the state faces an unusually high number of other risks, uncertainties and cost pressures not accounted for.”

OK, now give me the really bad news. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, freshly self-removed from the governor’s race, must be thanking his lucky stars he only has to deal with a piddling $500 million city budget deficit.

It would appear that the state’s once-glorified gravy train has steamed off the tracks. The forecast predicts no pay raises for state employees or cost-of-living increases. That’s why our striking hotel workers in San Francisco are looking, shall we say, a little out of step with the times. State employees will be clinging to their jobs for dear life.

“The scale of the deficits is so vast that we know of no way that the Legislature, the governor and voters can avoid making additional, very difficult choices about state priorities,” the report says. “In the coming years, major state spending programs will have to be significantly reduced.”

So it will be interesting to see if billionaire Republican candidate Meg Whitman can really convince voters that she can slash thousands of government jobs while creating new ones in the private sector, a trick as fluid as an election year promise. And we can’t wait to see what California Attorney General Jerry Brown has to say about reversing the state’s economic free-fall or, for that matter, anything else.

Remember: He’s not a candidate.

This may explain why GOP moderate Tom Campbell is still in the running, since he actually has considerable budget experience, even if that includes his nearly empty campaign treasury.

Voters can relate to empty wallets.


Water bond jam-packed with billion-plus in pork

The $11 billion water bond recently passed by lawmakers has received praise from almost all corners. Could it be because of all that pork hidden in the bill?

It must be second nature, but somehow, amid all those tough negotiations about water rights, dam-building and levee-strengthening, state legislators managed to sneak in more than $1 billion for such nonliquid interests as visitor centers, bike paths and museums. And while they may all eventually be laden with drinking fountains, I don’t think they have anything to do with fixing the state’s unquenchable thirst.

I’m sure you’ll be surprised to learn that the package of perks includes taxpayer treats for the districts headed by lawmakers who voted for the bond bailout. Two Los Angeles Democrats, Sen. Curren Price and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, somehow managed to land $20 million for the Baldwin Hills Conservancy.

Price said the inclusion of the cash helped “to remove any hesitancy I might have had,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

For $20 million, I’d even show some excitement.

The measure also includes $25 million for “watershed education facilities,” but only for urban areas that have populations over 1 million people. And that means a lot of farmers in Kern County got gypped.

Fresno County got $25 million for “river parkway projects,” which call for extensive bike trails. And Orange County will get millions to help preserve Indian artifacts.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger defended the earmarks, because that’s what it takes to get a key bill passed these days.


Fine print could burn proposed cigarette tax

A new cigarette tax proposed for the ballot, pushed by former state Senate leader Don Perata, has already run into trouble from education advocates because it appears it was released before anyone read the package’s fine print.

That would be the part that says this measure would grab revenue already ceded out to organizations getting money from — you guessed it — cigarette taxes. And that’s why a number of advocacy groups are saying that they might fight the proposed measure, along with Big Tobacco.

Sin taxes are nothing new; they’ve been highly popular with voters, and as it turns out, that’s part of the problem. Thirty years ago, state voters approved a 25-cent tax on each pack of cigarettes to fund health education and disease research. A decade ago, another 50 cents was levied on cigarette sales and
targeted for childhood education. But the new measure would eat into the revenue stream of the other taxes, something its backers apparently failed to consider.

There is still time to adjust the calculations, but it looks like Perata, who is running for mayor of Oakland next year, discovered some instant opposition. And if things don’t get worked out, the measure could go up in smoke.


Layoffs: Way to reduce emissions?

The spin cycle over at Al Gore’s TV network appears to be agitating out of control. Officials announced recently that they are laying off 80 people, in large part due to the cable company’s rosy financial outlook. Could this “keep more people out of their cars’’ ploy be Gore’s way of saving the environment?

Current Media’s Orwellian take on the layoffs read: “This reorganization was not the result of a need to cut costs. Current Media will have its most profitable year. This financial stability will allow the company to reallocate resources in order to put further emphasis on areas to best position Current Media for continued long-term growth.”

So while it may have been an unhappy day at the network’s West Coast offices, in the big smiley-face picture, this was a joy-joy moment for the future of cable TV.

The next round of cuts should be really cool.

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