It was another rough month for the families and taxpayers of California, as the legislature completed this year’s budget this week. I don’t know if there is anyone who is actually happy about the budget, as even the majority party who crafted it in its entirety would certainly rather be growing rather than cutting and eliminating programs. But there are bad ways to deal with a deficit of this size, and there are worse ways, and make no mistake about it-they have chosen some of the very worst ways to do it.
A few of the worst elements of this budget plan (in no particular order):
- Once again, the process was done largely in secret behind closed doors. Hearings were held only on the most general concepts (when they existed at all), and witnesses were unable to say how specific programs might be affected or how much would be spent or cut. Groups who were affected by the cuts (like local governments) were not allowed to see the final language until it was too late to organize against it, and promises that had been made in negotiations before the budget were absent when the bills were passed on the floor.
- The budget is based on the assumption that California’s voters will pass an $8 billion tax increase in November, despite the fact that voters have rejected the last 8 taxes to appear on state-wide ballots, including the tobacco tax that just failed in June. If voters are unwilling to support a relatively small tax that doesn’t affect most of them to cure cancer, are they really likely to pass a massive tax increase that will affect everyone and be spent by our dysfunctional state government?
- The relatively successful Healthy Families Program that covers medical and dental care for poor children was scrapped, putting them into the state’s Medi-Cal program instead. Healthy Families is administered by a private group for $50 per client, Medi-Cal is run by state employees for $395 per client.
- Roughly $16 million was budgeted for administration and collection of the problematic and likely illegal fire tax. It is likely that no net revenues will ever be recovered from this tax before it is struck down, and we will pay $16 million for nothing.
- It is expected that next week the Legislature will approve the $2.7 billion in bond sales that the governor wants for initial construction of the High Speed Rail Program, which will cost the state general fund roughly $180 million annually for 30 years-enough to keep all the State Parks open, fully fund the UCR Medical School, and restore funding to the cities in Riverside County who were victimized in last year’s budget-and still leave tens of millions of dollars to restore other cuts in critical programs or schools.
- The Governor has targeted massive and unnecessary cuts at education if his tax increase fails as expected in November. I supported a budget alternative that would have protected schools and higher education from budget cuts, but it never even received a hearing. Holding a figurative gun to the head of schools to force voters to pass his tax increase is a cynical move that exposes his true priorities.
- Pension reform has been cast aside again. Rather than including the billions in potential savings from legitimate reform in the state budget, votes on the Governor’s plan (a good one, actually) have been rejected, and all discussion of reform has taken place in private. Rumor has it there may be a vote on some sort of reform next week, but once again, nobody but the legislative leadership and the government union leaders who elected them know what will be in it.
- Local governments were once again victimized in multiple ways that attack their authority, their flexibility, their budgets, and the safety of their residents.
I am asked regularly what can be done to fix the problems in Sacramento, and there are no easy answers. With the passage of Proposition 25 two years ago, only a simple majority is required to pass a budget, so the party in charge in Sacramento has free reign and can now make decisions based on whatever priorities they want. The only way to change what is happening in the Capitol is to change the folks who are running the State Capitol.
Another option is through the initiative system, which allows citizens to go around those who control state government. There is an initiative which just qualified for the November ballot that does put some restraints on how your government operates, including a requirement that bills be in print and publicly available for 72 hours prior to a vote. I haven’t had a chance to review all the reforms contained in this measure, and this should not be considered an endorsement of the “Government Performance and Accountability Act”, but it is increasingly clear that the legislature is not willing to reform itself, and change will likely have to be forced upon them.
Because I am leaving the Assembly at the end of the year, this was my last budget fight in Sacramento, and I can guarantee I will not miss it one bit!