SACRAMENTO — If Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger were to fire every employee in state government tomorrow, it would easily patch California's enormous deficit, right? Not even close.
But surely shutting down all the state prisons would do the trick? That, too, would only get him about a quarter of the way there.
Now what if he were to close every prison and cut off funding for health care and other services for the poor? Now we're in the ballpark.
Schwarzenegger on Thursday to delivered his annual State of the State address, and there was only one topic on his mind: A budget deficit that's ballooned to $40 billion through mid-2010.
How does the average taxpayer begin to make sense of that sum? Not easily.
"It's like a number that's out there, but it's so big that it almost becomes meaningless," said Adrienne Gates, a 50-year-old San Jose resident who keeps fairly close tabs on news out of Sacramento. "It's like hearing stories about how fast the universe is expanding."
Even state lawmakers seem only now to be coming to grips with the enormity of their problem, after months of finger-pointing. No matter how big the shortfall got over the past year, Democrats and Republicans hewed to their long-held opposition to deep program cuts or tax hikes.
It's been only this month, with the state literally on the verge of not being able to pay many of its bills, that signs have emerged that both sides realize they're going to have to make major concessions.
"There isn't a real will to hunker down until you have to," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State University. "But it's reached the point where they don't have a choice. Polemics don't work."
Still, even a governor and Legislature in perfect ideological harmony would struggle to close a deficit this big. Consider that $40 billion is the amount the state shells out of its general fund each year for the public school system.
Payroll for California's roughly 230,000 civil servants tallies a mere $18 billion — not including legislative aides or people who work for the state's courts or university systems. (Those 149,000 additional folks aren't under the governor's control, but even if Schwarzenegger could fire them, their salaries wouldn't be enough to patch the $40 billion deficit.)
California's shortfall is larger than the entire yearly budget of every other state except New York. It exceeds the gross domestic product of more than 100 countries, including Syria, Costa Rica and Kenya.
Closer to home, it's 40 times the size of San Jose's general operating fund, which pays for most of the city's basic services. And it's a devilish 666 times the size of San Jose's projected deficit of more than $60 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
It's also $3 billion more than the combined net worth of Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, according to Forbes. And $40 billion could purchase more than 500 Boeing 737-800s.
Of course, the governor and lawmakers aren't talking about buying airplanes. They're weighing cuts to programs that educate kids and help the needy and tax hikes at a time when families are stretching to make ends meet.
"Because of the recession and the slide in the stock market, the deficit has grown has grown so big, so quickly," said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger's finance department. "And it's forced a menu of very difficult decisions to be put on the table."