Of squeeze plays and shakedowns

Carson City Democrats and their clapping seals among the pundit brigade first ridiculed Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons for showing some reluctance about accepting strings-attached federal “bailout” funds this winter — and then ridiculed him again when he finally agreed to take the handouts to ease the state’s budget woes (just as they had wanted him to), implying there hadn’t been any reason for his hesitancy in the first place.

It’s probably too much to hope that the skeptics will issue Gov. Gibbons an apology after examining the “stimulus-funds” squeeze play which the Obama administration is now pulling in California. But it’s one for the books, indicating just how “minimal” and “theoretical” and “benign” is the iron-fisted power Washington believes it has gained over the formerly sovereign states with these handouts — and where the new administration stands when it comes to a choice between balancing state budgets and giving taxpayers some relief on the one hand, vs. paying back the Democrats’ employee-union paymasters on the other.

A rapidly expanding California state program (is that redundant?) called In-Home Supportive Services is intended to keep low-income elderly and disabled Californians out of nursing homes. People who qualify for the program can hire anyone they choose to take care of them, including relatives and friends.

Under the program, the state currently contributes $12.10 per hour to pay some 300,000 people who care for elderly and ill Californians in their homes. Those workers then collectively pay millions of dollars in dues each month to the Service Employees International Union and another union. Whether they like it or not.

In an attempt to balance California’s state budget, even Sacramento Democrats agreed to a $74 million cut in the program, scheduled to take effect July 1. The cut lowers the state’s maximum contribution to home-health-care workers’ pay from $12.10 per hour to $10.10 (still far above the “minimum wage.”)

But the SEIU doesn’t like that. And the SEIU was among the biggest donors to President Barack Obama’s campaign, handing the former Illinois senator a whopping $33 million.

So the Obama administration has ruled that if California wants to keep the $6.8 billion in federal stimulus funds it’s been promised by Washington, the state Legislature must revoke the home helpers’ wage cut — an action that would require a two-thirds vote of the state Legislature, thus requiring minority GOP support.

Not only that, officials in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office tell the Los Angeles Times they’re troubled that the SEIU, which lobbied the federal government to step in, was included in a conference call in which state and federal officials reviewed the wage cut and the terms of the stimulus package.

California Secretary of Health and Human Services Kim Belshe said she could not recall another instance in which the federal government invited such a “stakeholder” group — that is to say, a group with concerns but no legal role in the proceedings — into such government-to-government negotiations.

“The involvement of a stakeholder in this kind of state-federal deliberative process is unusual at best,” she said. “This was really atypical and outside any norm I am familiar with.”

In addition to several state and federal officials, participants in the April 15 conference call included an SEIU associate general counsel in Washington, a lobbyist for SEIU in California and a representative from SEIU’s policy staff in California, according to a list provided by the Schwarzenegger administration.

During the call, state officials say, they were asked to defend the $74 million cut scheduled to take effect July 1.

The state officials told the Times that federal representatives appeared to side with the state during the call, but that on April 30, California officials received a letter from the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, informing them the wage cut must be rescinded.

Yeah, go ahead and take the federal handouts. Washington will never turn around and use that as a lever to strip your state of its sovereignty, right down to your efforts to balance your state budget by trimming fast-expanding union payroll costs.

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