Most of the political animals that make their living in Washington D.C. have heard of a crafty and devious maneuver called “The Washington Monument Strategy.” Legend has it that “The Washington Monument Strategy” got its name – and, no doubt, is now a permanent feature in the unofficial Bureaucratic Hall of Fame, which is located in a small unmarked room at IRS headquarters – when the National Park Service would, year and year, and after repeated calls from the President and Congress to find budget savings to their own agency, simply respond that they would have no choice but to close the Washington Monument. You could hear the sighs and gasps from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other. The politicians, upon hearing that one of the most visited and beloved sites in our nation’s capitol would close if they cut the budget of the National Parks Service, crumbled faster than the Chicago Cubs in August. “The Washington Monument Strategy” can now be broadly defined as any maneuver by a bureaucrat or politician to wall-off a particular government agency from the searching eyes of cost-conscience reformers.

Unfortunately, any crafty and devious strategy born and bred by the political animals in Washington D.C. has a way of quickly leaping over Beltway traffic, catching a brisk westerly wind, and landing in the State Capitol in Sacramento. On June 5th, we watched, as the 6-member Budget Conference Committee began to discuss how to craft a $100 billion state budget, a variation of “The Washington Monument Strategy” in full display.

No, legislators weren’t threatening to close Sutter’s Fort or the Golden Gate Bridge. Instead, Senator Peace, chairman of the committee, told his colleagues that the state budget deficit was so serious that they should consider letting out nonviolent criminals 16 months before their sentences were up, claiming that this would save the state $247 million. He even suggested that prisoners 60 years and older who were convicted of violent crimes could be released early to achieve additional budget savings. Apparently, these old guys, after a long career of beating up people and stealing cars and pumping iron in prison just want to retire peacefully and play golf at Sun City. Sure.

I was at first shocked that Senator Peace, one of the most powerful politicians in Sacramento, was suggesting, only weeks after Attorney General Lockyer announced that the crime rate in our state rose 5.8% last year, that the Governor and Legislature should balance the budget on the backs of law-abiding citizens. Didn’t he know that the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento had, just tow days previously, released a study that found that 67% of former inmates released from state prison were arrested again within three years? Was he not aware of the various studies that have estimated that the average criminal commits anywhere from 12 to 21 crimes during the year prior to incarceration? Sure, the state could theoretically save a couple hundred million dollars by releasing prisoners early, but what about the large “off budget costs” that would be imposed on law-abiding citizens who are the victims of property and identity theft? And, of course, no one could even begin to measure the untold suffering experienced by victims of murder, battery and rape.

Senator Peace’s early release proposal is absurd. But perhaps the very absurdity of the idea is the point. It got me thinking about the power of “The Washington Monument Strategy” and why it too often works in the political arena. Maybe even Senator Peace recognizes that the early release proposal is absurd. If the early release proposal injects fear and allows him to get something else he wants, then the mission is accomplished. It seems that Senator Peace is using this strategy to try to set the stage for billions of dollars in tax increases to balance the state budget. He essentially frames the debate as a choice between raising taxes by $4-5 billion and borrowing $7.5 billion from future generations or releasing prisoners. It is “The Washington Monument Strategy” with a dangerous Sacramento twist.

Senator Peace, and others who favor large tax increases this year, are presenting a false choice. The truth is that the Legislature has a spending problem of alcoholic proportions. Over the last three years, spending has increased by 37%. According to the Legislative Analyst Office (LAO), even if the Legislature approves the Governor’s proposed budget without changing a comma – “implementing his vision” – next year’s budget would start off with a $10 billion deficit. And the state should not count on a sudden tidal wave of new revenue. On June 5, economists at UCLA warned that raising taxes by $4 billion could delay California’s economic recovery and further increase the budget deficit.

Frederick Douglass once said “truth is proper and beautiful at all times and in all places.” Unfortunately, the truth too often gets stuck in the elevator at the State Capitol. The first step to solving the budget problem is to acknowledge the truth about overspending. The next critical step is to reject efforts by politicians or bureaucrats to stir up our emotions and create fear by using local variations of “The Washington Monument Strategy” and to constructively search out ways to achieve budget efficiencies without hurting the most vulnerable among us and to ensure the safety of law-abiding individuals and families.

I think that if George Washington were alive, that he might give our modern-day politicians a stern lecture about the importance of truth, honesty, and choosing priorities in public service. He might even tell them that if you cut down a cherry tree, that “honesty is the best policy.”

June 20, 2002