More than a decade ago, Helen Thomson – then Assemblywoman, now County Supervisor – spoke on the Assembly Floor about a budget that harshly impairs local government.
The speech, and many of her points, still apply today:
“The Half-Baked Budget”
by Assemblywoman Helen Thomson
Assembly Floor Speech
August 11, 1997
In my district, we have a lot of potluck events: charities, church socials, PTA, and so on. The Budget before us makes me think of a cake which has been brought to one of these potlucks. It’s a pretty sorry lopsided looking cake, but it’s obviously been toiled over for hours on end — and by quite a few people, no doubt.
One shouldn’t want to criticize this cake. It just wouldn’t be polite! Not with all the hard work and good intentions that went into baking it. (But as legislators we have to discuss this cake, even if we risk offending the bakers.)
Most of that effort in this cake went into the frosting and the decorations. That’s what you do when you have a cake that doesn’t bake right. You can’t re-bake it. So you do your best to dress it up and hope it will pass.
This cake had a whole lot of chefs. Some say that’s the problem. But the problem isn’t with the chefs – or how many there are. The problem is the basic recipe they started with. It goes something like this:
• Start with last year’s recipe and what’s left of last year’s cake. No matter how moldy or stale… Build on that.
• Go to your neighbors and take 3.1 billion cups of flour. (280 million less than you took last time you baked this cake.)
• Ask all 121 chefs to toss in their favorite ingredient… and sift.
• Throw into a blender and blend for five months. In the meantime, do some other house chores.
• After five months of blending, throw it all out and start over…. This time with just five chefs — the biggest five.
• Use same ingredients as before, but remove 1.3 billion cups of flour to give back to the employees you illegally borrowed (stole!) It from 4 years ago.
• Go back to your neighbor and ask for the 280 million cups of flour you said you wouldn’t take this year.
• Now ask the five big chefs for their favorite ingredients and add them.
• Blend for one minute.
• Place in oven, bake at 105 degrees for 5 days.
• Remove from oven. It is lopsided and collapsed, but don’t worry. That’s why we have frosting.
• To frost, cover the cake thoroughly with large swaths of public relations butter cream rhetoric, being careful to cover the entire cake.
• To decorate, use dollops of colorful pork fat swirled into rose petals.
Now for the presentation:
• Light with green candles brought by 2/3 of the guests present and voting.
• Cheer three times when the green lights appear.
• Pat each other on the back and leave town quickly before anyone eats the cake in your presence.
Members, just like this is no way to make a cake, this is no way to make a budget. You can’t build either from the top down.
This is the 21st time I will be called upon to cast a vote for a final budget for a government entity I was elected to help govern. I voted YES every time. Today I will vote NO.
I will be voting NO because I was not elected to come here to continue the status quo.
I was not elected to come here to assist in the ongoing rip-off of local property taxpayers to fund big state government.
I was not elected to come here and allow big state government to soak up every dollar and force local governments to cut programs and raise fees and taxes just to stay in place.
I was not elected to take billions from local governments, return a few crumbs in popular programs, then brag about our generosity.
And I was not elected to abdicate my elected responsibility to closed door negotiations which determine the state’s spending priorities with little input from the rest.
Lest you think I do not understand the need for compromise, every one of the 20 prior budgets I voted for required a great deal of compromise. I know how to make cuts and tough choices. In 20 years of local government I have had to make much tougher cuts, and tougher choices, than this budget calls for.
When you make cuts in local government you face the consequences immediately. When you close a hospital, the doctors, nurses and patients are on your doorstep throughout the process. When you end a recreation program, or cut a homeless shelter, or grind an asphalt road into dirt because you can’t afford to re-pave it, the people you impact are not only in your office, they are in your grocery store, in your church, and in your living room. You can’t hide!
This budget says we don’t trust local elected representatives to make the tough choices. It says we in Sacramento know better.
I am frankly surprised to see those on the other side of the aisle allow their party, and their governor, to become the strongest advocates of big government and the greatest obstacle to local governments, local businesses and local property taxpayers.
I am also disappointed to see there are those on my side of the aisle who fail to fully grasp the fact that those we care about deeply — the poor, the unemployed, the abused, the sick, the elderly and disabled — are the ones who often rely solely on local government as their safety net.
Big state government doesn’t run a battered woman’s shelter. Locals do.
Big state government doesn’t care for and feed the homeless. Locals do.
Big state government doesn’t extend a welcome hand to new legal immigrants.
Big state government doesn’t provide the infrastructure, the streets, water systems, sewers that local businesses count on.
And big state government doesn’t supply the police and fire protection that keep our families and communities safe. Locals do.
Fortunately, most of us in this house have some understanding of this fact. Earlier in this process, (early in the recipe) this Assembly sought to return $280 million to local governments because we recognized that was the bare minimum local governments would need to do their job. $280 million was meant to be a small down payment, an expression of good faith that we would try and get the recipe right.
We all talked the talk, but this budget doesn’t walk the walk. Instead, this budget starves local government.
When local governments and taxpayers are left to fend for themselves, they begin to war with each other for the only remaining scraps — sales tax. Cities and counties fight over who will be home to another big-name, big-box, sales-tax generating retail franchise from Arkansas or elsewhere — while at the same time they turn thumbs down on property tax generating housing and manufacturing projects because property tax revenues no longer cover the local costs associated with new development.
Members, the hit this budget takes on local government is solidly anti-business, and the business community knows it better than anyone else.
So, Republicans, this is a big government, anti-business budget, that socks it to local businesses and taxpayers and invites local governments to raise taxes to stay afloat.
And Democrats, this a cruel budget that gives ongoing support to questionable state bureaucracies while it cuts local government services for real people truly in need.
I understand it is too late to re-bake this cake. But I sincerely hope we learn from this mistake and don’t allow ourselves to repeat it again next year.
This budget once again tells local government “Let them eat cake.” While Marie Antoinette would be proud, I don’t believe it passes the Betty Crocker test.