Road to Athens

     As a young reporter, I interviewed Michael Franchetti, the director of finance for the just-elected Republican governor, George Deukmejian, who followed the first administration of Jerry Brown. I thought I had struck gold when I went over my tape of the interview.
     The finance director was betting on an upsurge in the economy. He was going to borrow and spend money up front, gambling that the economy would bail him out.
     California at the time was having a hard time paying its bills, after the passage of Proposition 13 that cut property taxes sharply. At the same time, Deukmejian had campaigned on a promise that he would not raise any taxes.
     But the policy gamble that I found shocking created not the slightest ripple of controversy. It was par for the course in California, the biggest economy in the nation.
      As the new governor of California, Brown on his second time around inherits a state budget left in bad shape, that includes, among many other commitments, the obligation to pay interest on a nearly $1 billion borrowed from the federal government.
     Can Brown now do what Deukmejian did to bail himself out of the mess left by the earlier Brown gamble on the economy.
     The odds were good in the past. The economy went through cycles and you figured it had to come back, and it almost always did. Franchetti’s gamble, for instance, paid off. The economy came surging back and California returned to fiscal health.
     This time around is different. Throwing the dice on the economic cycle is a lot riskier than it was before.
     Does that suggest California might be on a Greek path, the path of a society headed towards bankruptcy because it is besotted with spending while big daddy, the economy, is no longer around to fix things.
     Well, it sure could.
     I say that because I have had a pretty good look at how administrators for the state’s courts operate. Extrapolating from those examples, you can see that fiscal discipline is not part of the California government’s culture.
     It’s a bit like taking a Google map of the state and zooming in on your restaurant, but I noted with interest the dismissal of a public information officer from the state courts in Los Angeles in a dispute that remains cloaked in mystery.
     A Los Angeles Times article on the dismissal, which took place in November, said the public information officer was paid $138,000 after eight years on the job, a pay level set by the superior court in L.A.
     Given the opposition our news service has run into from a number of state court public information officers, I wanted to compare that amount with the pay of public information officers on the federal side, who by and large understand that the press does have a role in reporting on government.
     In federal court, the public information officer job is generally a GS-13, which with eight yearly step raises gets you up to $88,000, plus a Los Angeles cost of living adjustment of 21%, and you’re at $105,000. A whole lot leaner than $138,000.
     Spending by court administrators at the statewide level also continues at a remarkable clip.
     Last fall, a subcomittee of the court’s governing body recommended that employees of the administrative office of the courts receive 3.5% pay raise, in a year when local courts were closing their doors once a month because of budget courts.
     Then in December, the court’s governing body decided to take $140 million from trial court operating and construction funds in order to pay for a $1.3 billion computer project that trial judges decry as a “boondoggle” and a “Spruce Goose,” in reference to the Howard Hughes plane that flew once for a short distance and was then put in a museum.
      As reported by Courthouse News, Judge Steve White of Sacramento Superior Court warned at that meeting of the $25-$28 billion hole in the state’s budget, and pointed to five-hour lines in his court as evidence of an increasingly dire fiscal problem.
     So. Does that all start to sound like Greece.

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