Everyone in government knows about the Washington Monument strategy. When budget times are tough, you threaten to shut down the most visible and popular programs -- access to the Washington Monument, say -- in order to make the situation appear dire.

California has a legitimately dire budget situation right now. But legislators have come up with something I don't remember seeing before. They're using the budget crisis as an excuse to gut a controversial program.

Legislators are having to cut programs all over the country. For the most part, the current dynamic has them trying their best to preserve funding for as many ongoing programs as they can.

The Democrats who control California's budget conference committee voted Tuesday to eliminate the state's high school exit exam requirement. As in other states, the idea of a high-stake graduation exam has been controversial in the Golden State. They've taken advantage of the budget crisis as an excuse to get rid of it, although Gov. Schwarzenegger vows to see that it gets funded.

"I'm surprised that anyone was surprised," state Sen. Mark Leno, a member of the committee, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "The exam has been controversial for many years."

As Leno suggests, money is not the real issue. The exam costs the state about $8 million. For a state with a shortfall well in excess of $20 billion -- well, who are they kidding?

The legislators say it's not the actual cost of the exam that they're worried about -- it's the effect other budget cuts have had on the kids.

"When the state is making cuts that could lead to a shorter school year, fewer teachers and larger class sizes, it doesn't seem realistic to expect the same results as before the cuts," said Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Baldwin Vista (Los Angeles County), in a statement.

The point of a high school exit exam is to test what students have learned through their whole K-12 careers. There might be some merit to the argument that they're being short-changed due to budget cuts, but it seems to me that's something you would want even more to measure.

High-stakes tests certainly have their flaws. It's worth having the debate about whether they're worthwhile. But legislators who have lost that fight should learn to live with it, rather than using sneaky tricks like eliminating funding without any hearings or warning.