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True Whys

The governor's latest big play on California's budget mess landed with a resounding thud.

As this space reported in what you like to call your real time, the Terminator shook up Sacramento on Wednesday, when aides leaked word that he planned to sign an executive order temporarily slashing the pay of some 200,000 state workers to the federal minimum wage, and laying off a few thousand others.

The notion was met with an immediate, and entirely predictable, hail of heavy breathing and political brickbatsby public employee unions and Democrats, with even the Republican legislative leadership describing it as "extreme."

Whatever else he accomplished with the proposal, Gov. Tasker attracted plenty of attention to the previously low-profile brouhaha over the $144 billion budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, which is now 42 days late.

As a political maneuver, however, the slash-their-pay plan seemed long on sizzle and short on steak; within a few hours after the Sacramento Bee's terrific "Capitol Alert" broke the story, Democratic Controller John Chiang, who signs the state checks, declared that he would refuse to implement the order on legal grounds. Not long after that, the Legislative Counsel's office weighed in on Chiang's side of the argument.

So despite the governor's Big Bang, the stalemate between legislative Democrats and Republicans on the budget remains stuck where it has been for weeks: The D's propose $8 billion in new taxes to close a $15 billion deficit, and the R's insist on no new taxes, threatening to hold their collective breath until they turn blue. The GOPers also propose a hard spending cap for future budgets, from which the party of government recoils in horror. Of course, they have made progress in at least one area: everybody's mad at Arnold.

In analyzing the, uh, political strategy behind the governor's pitch, seven key words come to mind: What in the world was he thinking?

For one thing, even if the pay-cut plan was unanimously greeted with huzzahs and a hearty round of "He's a Jolly Good Fellow," why spend precious political capital on what is not a substantial proposal for the serious problems underlying the budget deficit? Little more than a short-term band-aid, it actually might enable lawmakers to keep playing partisan tit-for-tat by giving the state enough cash to keep going for a month or two, without the need for high-cost borrowing through Revenue Anticipation Warrants. It would do nothing to address the fundamental disconnect between California's costs and revenues, or to make necessary reforms in California's tax system.

Sad but true, Schwarzenegger has become largely irrelevant to the budget situation, and to much other business in Sacramento. Democrats sneer at him as ineffective, while lawmakers of his own party consider him what Republican true believers call a "squish," soft and unreliable on hardcore party principles like taxes.

For weeks, the top legislative leaders have been holding budget talks without him, until he finally took a break from the political talk show circuit to sit down for a session with them last Monday. Two days later, he blindsided everyone with a surprise proposal out of left actually, right -field. Perhaps the governor figured he would simultaneously inject himself back into the game, get some cheap pub, apply political pressure for a quick budget deal, and position himself to publicly blame the legislative squabblers for the consequences of his executive order.

Problem is, nobody is taking seriously it enough for the play to unfold.

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