08/02/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

California Deserves Better Than What Sacramento Gives

Bernard Madoff stood in front of the judge just before receiving his sentence of 150 years for conducting the largest Ponzi scheme in history and read a personal statement. As he concluded, Madoff reportedly turned to the courtroom crowd, and said, "I am sorry," adding: "I know that doesn't help you."

The closing line from Madoff's soliloquy could also apply to the California Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

For decades, a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers along with past and present governors has put off difficult choices, using one-time gimmicks, while claiming balanced budgets. In retrospect, it was nothing more than the state engaging in its own version of a Ponzi scheme.

The governor and every member of the Legislature should now hold a joint press conference stating:

We realize the state is $24 billion in the hole. Furloughs are forthcoming, IOUs will soon go out, but we can't get a deal done; we're sorry, we know that doesn't help you.

Hamstrung by institutionalized impediments that make a budget deal difficult, along with a governor who has seemingly taken a blood oath to veto any tax increase, conveniently allows everyone working on the budget to miss the fact California's deficit has national implications.

California is roughly 12 percent of the nation's gross domestic product and possesses the largest share of retail sales of any state. As Associated Press reporter Juliet Williams noted in a recent article, for every dollar California sends to the federal government, it get backs 80 cents -- which means the Golden State keeps a number of social programs afloat across the country.

The dysfunctional manner that has been systematically institutionalized into the state's operations has been well chronicled, but that does not mean our elected officials should receive a pass for adding to the chaos.

Last week, Assembly Democrats put up legislation that would have cut roughly $10 billion to $12 billion in state spending, but was defeated because Republican members wanted a comprehensive budget solution. Then Controller John Chiang stated he would begin issuing IOUs on July 2 to students expecting college grants, those with disabilities, those who receive public aid, as well as private companies that have contracts with the state, if there is no budget deal.

The next day, the Assembly agreed on three deficit bills through deferrals on educations payments that would have saved approximately $5 billion -- avoiding the need to issue IOUs. But before they reached the Senate floor, the governor said he would veto the bills.

On Friday, the Assembly adjourned in memory of pop star Michael Jackson. I realize Jackson's death has global ramifications, but so does California's $24 billion deficit.

I recognize it was unlikely the Assembly would have reached a budget agreement on Friday. But California has its highest jobless rate (11.5 percent) in some time; personal income has declined statewide for the first time since the Great Depression, and personal income tax revenue coming to the state declined 34 percent for the first five months of 2009.

What is the message sent to state workers, those on the margins whose social safety net potentially hangs in the balance, and to the electorate in general by adjourning early for any reason short of a national or state emergency?

Then, on Sunday evening, Democratic leaders in the state Assembly, in an attempt to circumvent the two-thirds vote for a tax increase, pushed through a proposal using a series of legal maneuvers to put higher levies without any Republican votes. As expected, the governor vowed to veto the bill because it includes a tax increase.

Failing to agree on at least $3 billion of education spending by the midnight deadline could increase the deficit, triggered by Proposition 98 funding.

It is difficult to watch the state's elected officials allegedly standing on principle when they've passed on the opportunity for years. One cannot be obligated to a political ideology or principle during a crisis; that's not a luxury available to elected officials.

To stand on principle during a crisis suggests that one is either unable think outside of the box or one is simply playing politics. Either way, the people of California and the nation deserve better. Finger-pointing, drawing lines in the sand and constitutional deadlines have proven ineffective. California's dysfunctional process lives to see another day.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist and blog-talk radio host. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at or visit his website:

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