George Will

SACRAMENTO -- The plan is for the good ship California to float to safety over jagged economic reefs -- mostly reefs of its own making -- on a tide of testosterone. But the second-most crucial member of the ship's new crew is named Donna.

Being director of California's department of finance is not for the fainthearted. ``Breathtaking'' and ``staggering'' were among Donna Arduin's initial descriptions of the state budget, which is triple the size of Florida's, although California's population is only double Florida's. She guesses that 75 percent of California's budget is controlled by constitutional or other state and federal mandates. None of the other states where she has done budget diagnostics matched California's entanglement in union contracts that limit competitive bidding by private-sector providers of services.

An aide says someone should design an Arduin ``tour jacket'' like those that rock bands have, listing on the back the cities the bands visit. So far, Arduin's jacket would list Lansing, Albany, Tallahassee and Sacramento. Before coming here from Florida, where she was helping Gov. Jeb Bush, she assisted New York Gov. George Pataki and former Michigan Gov. John Engler.

California's good news is the severity of the bad news. Change becomes easier, an Arduin aide says, ``when you have one foot in the fiscal grave.'' The state's credit rating -- worst among the states; one cut above junk bonds -- will presumably be improved if, on March 2, voters authorize $15 billion in borrowing to tidy up past debts. The alternatives are default in June, followed by tax increases.

Then must come measures to decrease the cost of doing business in California. Concerning which, consider Buck Knives.

Favored by sportsmen around the world, they have been made in San Diego since Hoyt Buck arrived there in 1947. By next year they will be made in Idaho, where the firm's immediate savings will include $500,000 in workers' compensation costs and a 60 percent decrease in utility bills.

The owner of five Hungry Howie's Pizza franchises near Fresno scrapped plans to add five more, with up to 70 new jobs, when energy costs tripled and workers' compensation quadrupled. Multiply the businesses that do not come to, stay or expand in California and you have ... Argentina, which in 1900 had a per capita income as high as Canada's. Or sub-Saharan Africa, which In 1950 had per capita income as high as Southeast Asia's. Government -- especially bad government -- matters. In the late 1990s it helped drive roughly 200,000 Californians from the state each year.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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