All in all, the 1985 session of the California Legislature was a productive one. That, in part, is testimony to the fact that it is much easier to run the state with a surplus of funds than it is on a shoestring.
The most important single piece of legislation adopted by the Legislature, and signed by the governor, each year is the budget. California’s generally healthy economic status provided the revenue needed to satisfy most of the demands of the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. George Deukmejian. There was an unexpected bonus during the budget deliberations this year when the Finance Department discovered that revenues would exceed previous estimates by about $900 million.
And, possibly by coincidence, the final budget of $34.5 billion is just about $900 million larger than the $33.6 billion submitted by the governor in January. It provides for the emergency reserve of more than $1 billion that the governor had demanded for unexpected contingencies. Maintaining such a reserve should become a routine part of the budgeting process.
As in the governor’s first two years in office, the budget provides for substantial increases in spending for education, and the schools will get additional revenue from the new state lottery after it starts in October. But, even with the additional funds, the public-school system will be just about holding its own. In fact, California spending per pupil still runs below the national average, and is well behind other major industrial states. The system will face major stress with the large enrollment increases expected in coming years.
The major Sacramento initiatives of 1985 came outside the framework of the budget, and were achieved only after considerable political gamesmanship in the final week of a session that otherwise was marked by unusual tranquility and cooperation between the governor’s office and the Democratic leadership.
California will be a safer state because of the new automobile seat-belt law. It will be a better state because of the workfare program, if it is administered properly; increased spending for AIDS treatment, research and education; a beginning on prison construction, and a new effort to provide food and shelter for the homeless mentally ill.
There are plenty of issues left over for the second year of the session starting in January, including the controversial unitary system of taxing multinational corporations and the governor’s pet proposal for the consolidation of various state agencies into a single department to deal with toxic wastes.
The Legislature will begin next January with the assumption that little can be achieved in an election year. That need not be so. Certainly Democrats will be reluctant to give Deukmejian any victories that he can take into his reelection campaign. But lawmakers and chief executives have found ways in the past to compromise on programs in a way that permits everyone to claim sufficient election-year credit.
One thing that must be avoided, however, is rushing into an ill-considered competition to return any state surplus to voters as tax breaks until all legitimate needs of California are met.