Local legislators hear message: Cut

For weeks the polls had said that voters were going to do just what they did Tuesday: Conclusively reject Propositions 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D and 1E.

Voters — the 23 percent who cast ballots, anyway — sent a strong message to legislators and the governor: We don't like the way you're doing your jobs.

Some of the anger is misplaced and uninformed, to be sure, but we agree with the message that legislators from our area say they heard — start cutting.

In a conference call with The Modesto Bee editorial board Wednesday, Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, said the Legislature's response to Tuesday's vote has to be spending reductions. Assemblyman Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, draws the same conclusion in his commentary appearing on the adjoining page.

These cuts will be wide and deep. Inevitably, they'll include public education, because it makes up about half of all state spending. Cogdill said he hopes to make as few cuts in public safety and in Medi-Cal, but those are big dollar areas as well.

California's budget disaster is the result of years of splurging, followed by a recession that appears far from over. In those good years, state government grew and grew — in salaries paid and services provided.

Today, the budget deficit could be as high as $22 billion and the state is on the verge of insolvency. Legislators have to go to work immediately, and fortunately they seem to recognize the urgency. Then again, we've heard that before.

Ideally there would be a thoughtful review of where to cut. Realistically, though, the state needs to make severe cuts soon in order to reduce the flow of red ink.

Then, once services are reduced and Californians have experienced the new reality, there should be time for discussions of the common goals of the state and what, if anything, should be restored.

Legislators will be sharing in the pain, with an 18 percent pay cut that was authorized Wednesday by the Citizens Compensation Commission. Furthermore, under Proposition 1F — the only measure voters approved Tuesday — legislators won't be eligible for raises in years when the state is running a deficit.

Reaching a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is not the only big challenge. After that, a much more difficult task awaits: Restoring citizens' faith — not just in government, but in the possibility that they can trust their elected representatives to act responsibly and honorably to solve common problems.

There is only one way to do that: Work to reform California politics. Not just simple reforms, such as requiring only a majority vote to pass a budget, but larger ones, too: More transparency in the Legislature and the governor's office; less ballot-box budgeting; more accountable schools, cities, counties and special districts; modernized and more efficient government, including pay and benefits for the reality of life in the 21st century.

In other words, make Californians feel they are getting their money's worth from the governments they pay for.

In the end, Tuesday's vote was not so much an election about the budget as it was a referendum on how government has been performing.

The public's response: Not well. We want better. And we want it now.