Thursday, January 14, 2010


Gov. Schwarzenegger delivered his final State of the State address earlier this month—a rhetorical swan song that combined Terminator tough talk with budgetary ideas reminiscent of Kindergarten Cop.

While blasting the state legislature for its inaction on the deficit (now estimated at 20 billion over the next 18 months), the governor engaged in his own bit of Last Action Hero melodrama.

Specifically, Arnold proposed yet another inflexible formula for the state budget. Under his proposed constitutional amendment, beginning in 2014 California would spend no less than 10% of its budget on certain higher education items and no more than 7% on state prisons. Currently, according to the governor, those ratios are roughly reversed, with 11% going to prisons and 7.5% to higher education.

The rationale for these rigid mandates was straight out of central casting: “What does it say about a state that focuses more on prison uniforms than caps and gowns?”

Lost in this verbal posing was the fact that the current (and inscrutable) Prop. 98 mandate for K-14 spending is the subject of ongoing legislative dispute. Also ignored was the fact that no statistical correlation exists between excellent schools and money spent on the educational bureaucracy—a point famously made by the late Sen. Patrick Moynihan.

In a scholarly paper printed in 1993, the New York Democrat noted that the parent-child ratio (two-parent households) was strongly correlated with academic success, whereas per-pupil expenditures were far less indicative of achievement than the proximity of state capitals to the Canadian border. In view of these findings the impish Moynihan suggested that states consider moving their capitals closer to Canada.

On the other side of Schwarzenegger’s equation, it isn’t clear what the governor proposes to do if the number of prisoners in the state exceeds its legal financial ability to incarcerate them—especially given the cost of corrections employee contracts. Prisons bursting at the seams point to severe social problems, but it is a Batman and Robin fantasy to think that an arbitrary limit on expenditures won’t result in significant Collateral Damage.

Only academics and actors are surprised that the national decline in crime rates that began in the 1980s was accompanied by a precipitous increase in the prison population. Put simply—so even Conan the Barbarian can understand—when criminals are incarcerated, they can’t commit crimes.

Fortunately mayors throughout the Southland don’t have significant educational line items in their budgets. Consequently, they’re free to focus on public safety as a primary concern--without the True Lies demagoguery that assumes “too much spending” only applies to health care and prisons.

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