My first-ever real paying job was as an usher at a movie theater on Long Island, where for $1.85 an hour (minimum wage in those days) I had the pleasure of asking customers whether they wanted to sit in "balcony or loge?," in addition to sweeping popcorn, quieting noisy patrons and shining mirrors.

Not only that but I watched Stanley Kubrick’s "A Clockwork Orange" 57 times, which may well hold a spot in Guinness’ Book of Records. So you could argue I have first-hand experience in hard work and cheap pay.

So in light of recent events I kind of sympathize with the folks at the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Now I’m pretty sure they make more than $1.85 an hour, but with the White House recently doing their best Siegfried and Roy impression in making the agency’s proposed funding increase virtually disappear, I would not be at all surprised to hear that some SEC staffers are donning ill-fitting black jackets, skinny bowties and carrying flashlights in search of a new career.

Well maybe it’s not that drastic, but you do have to wonder how far down corporate fraud has fallen in terms of White House priorities. Basically, Dubya had promised the regulator an impressive 77 percent rise in funding for 2003, to $776 million. Not bad for an entity suffering from an acute lack of manpower and whose salary levels reportedly are below those of other government agencies. The commission had fallen far behind in its reviews of financial statements and in addition, needs extra funding for the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board – estimated to be in the neighborhood of $25 million.

But the President suddenly did a U-turn somewhere along Pennsylvania Avenue and trimmed the proposed increase to about $568 million, claiming that other expenditures such as those earmarked for the military and the war on terrorism had taken precedence over the SEC’s fiscal needs.

As expected, the funding slash brought out the usual cast of cynical suspects (primarily Democrats), questioning the administration’s commitment to pursuing corporate reform. And this time they may have a point.

In a climate where the average investor now regards a prospectus with the same disdain as a traffic summons, it probably would go a long way toward restoring confidence in the public markets if one of America’s watchdogs wasn’t operating, literally, on an austerity budget. Next year will be a landmark year with regard to corporate reform, once the effects of Sarbanes-Oxley have been fully felt throughout the profession and the PCAOB is in full operation.

Trust me, it’s no fun to watch the same movie over and over.

Commission chairman Harvey Pitt needs to tell President Bush to show him the money.

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