Meg's Search for the Lost City of Gold

You've heard of the Lost City of Gold, the Island of Atlantis, and Harvey the Rabbit. Well, California politics has its own answers to these myths.

It's called "waste, fraud and abuse."

And Meg Whitman, in her desperation, has found it.

The hard truth of California's budget crisis is that governors and legislators labor under rules that make budgeting nearly impossible. And that the public's appetite for government services far outweighs our willingness to pay taxes. But that's a tough message for politicians who need to win votes. So they tell us that they will find "waste, fraud, and abuse" in the budget -- and make our budget problems go away, painlessly. It's a well-worn dodge.

Whitman is the latest to embrace this canard, with a new spin. She's promising to appoint a state grand jury with the power to subpoena witnesses and documents and bring creators of waste, fraud and abuse to justice.

And if you believe this will ever happen, great. I have some swamp land in Palm Springs to sell you.

If Whitman's dodge sounds familiar to you, it should. While running for governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger and his campaign team (which includes many of the same strategists advising Whitman) pledged a forensic audit of waste, fraud and abuse--and thus solve our budget problems. The audit never happened. Schwarzengger did appoint a commission to review government operations; most of its major recommendations were ignored. Schwarzenegger later admitted that state government doesn't have the waste, fraud and abuse that he expected.

All this is not to say there isn't waste and fraud in California government. There most certainly is. But, in comparison to other states, California is relatively lean in spending and employees. Our budget problems are driven by a number of factors: big prison populations, rising debt service (a product of the public's unwillingness to pay for the services it receives), tax cuts (most notably in corporate taxes and vehicle license fees), and rising health care costs.

Health care would be the place to find fraud, but California's programs in this area are a rare bit of good news in state government: They are among the most efficient in the nation, and well managed.

Whitman and her opponents, who haven't been any more honest than she is about this, may dodge political trouble with this sort of dishonesty, but they are making the task of governing much more difficult. It's time to explain budget realities to the public, and stop recycling old fantasies.

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