Saturday, January 16, 2010



It’s always music to the ears of Californians when their governors gripe about the obvious inequity between what citizens of this state pay to the federal government and what they get back.

The likes of Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown, George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis all argued that California should get more. In recent years, the state has seen 78 cents spent here for every dollar California taxpayers put in, although Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein say federal stimulus and recovery spending have lately pushed that figure up.

Butno one ever made this kind of whining a major theme of an annual state of the state speech until Arnold Schwarzenegger tried it the other day.

His talk was full of unrealistic goals, some lofty and some not. There was the concept of a constitutional amendment to ensure the state always spends more on four-year colleges and universities than it does on prisons. There was the idea of privatizing much of the state prison system.

But nothing in the Schwarzenegger vision was less realistic than his demand that the federal government give back far more to this state than it now does.

“Federal funds have to be part of our budget solution because the federal government is part of our budget problem,” the governor intoned. “When President Clinton was in office, California got back 94 cents on the dollar from the federal government. Today we only get 78 cents back.”

There are a lot of reasons for that difference, if it still applies. They demonstrate why Schwarzenegger, to whom much seems fantastic, was fantasizing.

For one thing, California didn't get 94 cents back on the dollars it put into the federal pot until after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. The figure rose only when Clinton pumped more than $15 billion over three years into recovery efforts. These included payments topping $1,000 apiece to thousands of homeowners. There were also emergency highway and bridge retrofits, including the quick rebuilding job on a fallen bridge that disabled the Santa Monica Freeway in Los Angeles, at the time the nation’s busiest highway.

Does anyone want the kind of Katrina-style disaster needed to bring another cash infusion on that scale?

For another thing, Schwarzenegger – who blames California senators and members of Congress for not bringing home enough bacon – ignores the ABC factor. ABC – Anywhere But California. That’s how representatives of other states often feel about contributing anything to California, which has more representation in the Capitol than any state ever. Fearing domination by Californians, denizens of other states constantly try to put major federal projects elsewhere.

That’s why the National Earthquake Research Center went to Buffalo, NY. It’s one reason the supercolliding supercollider went to Texas. It was a factor in California taking by far the biggest hits of any state during the military base closures of the 1990s and early 2000s. All those decisions lower California’s return on its tax dollars.

No one seriously believes Schwarzenegger’s long and loud whines can change the ABC attitude. More likely, he’s providing satisfaction to senators from other states, who often steer projects away from California.

That doesn’t mean Schwarzenegger and his predecessors have been wrong about unfunded federal mandates like the cost of imprisoning criminal illegal immigrants, a longtime sore point first raised prominently by Wilson in the early ‘90s.

“We can no longer ignore what is owed to us or what we are forced to spend on federal mandates,” said Schwarzenegger. “We need to work with the feds so that we can fix the flawed formula that demands the state spend money that we do not have.”

The structure of the Senate, where tiny (in population) Alaska and Wyoming have as many seats as giant California, guarantees any demands from large states will get skeptical hearings. The proximity to Washington of states like Maryland and West Virginia, which get back far more federal dollars than they pay in because they host so many federal agencies, buildings and bases, is another reason California doesn’t get back what it puts in.

Is there a solution to this? There might be if the huge 53-person California House delegation so feared by other states could somehow work together. But that’s fantasy, too, since Californians in Congress are more deeply divided by ideology and regional differences than representatives of any other state. It’s almost laughable to think that extreme liberals like Henry Waxman of Los Angeles and Pete Stark of Hayward could ever work closely with extreme conservatives like Ken Calvert and Gary Miller from the Inland Empire area or Wally Herger of Butte County. But that’s what California would need to get its full share of the pie.

All of which makes this yet another Schwarzenegger fantasy, fun to talk about but not likely to prevent any state budget cuts.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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