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Another July With No Budget

So here we are again. It’s the first day of a new fiscal year and there’s no state budget. You will hear that it doesn’t matter and that no one really gets hurt so long as a budget is adopted by late in the month. Well, deadlines should matter. Legislators are sworn to uphold the California Constitution. Their inaction puts them in violation of that oath. Gov. Pete Wilson must share the blame for refusing to negotiate a budget deal during the Legislature’s budget-writing process.

And it’s not true that no one gets hurt. For instance, hundreds of local governments and school districts throughout the state have been forced to adopt their own budgets--on time--without being certain of what amount of state aid they will receive. This is particularly a problem for the 58 counties, which rely heavily on state support for their programs, many of them mandated by Sacramento.

In dire times, such as the recession of the early 1990s, there may have been some excuse for being late with the state budget. The problems in 1991 and 1992 were unprecedented in modern times and required the crafting of extreme and sometimes creative measures. But that is not the case in 1998.

Since January, it had been clear the state would have a healthy budget surplus going into fiscal 1998-99. It was not until May that the size of the surplus, $4.4 billion, was known. But lawmakers had plenty of time to set priorities for spending the money, returning it as tax cuts or holding it as a reserve against future hard times. Legislative leaders still are sorting out those priorities.

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Part of the problem is institutional, however. A budget must be enacted by a two-thirds vote of each house. Thus, a minority of members can block budget passage until their demands are met. The logical course is for California to adopt a constitutional amendment to allow approval of the budget by a simple majority, as is the case in more than 40 other states and the Congress.

Fiscal conservatives will complain that this would open the spending floodgate--presumably only when spendthrift liberals are in charge. But in fact, the change to a majority vote could save money. Because fewer votes would be needed, it would lessen the practice of legislative leaders annually allocating millions for minority members’ pet projects to win votes for the budget. Most of those projects might be worthwhile, but this is not a good way to set state spending priorities.

A companion change that would help assure fiscal responsibility is to require that the final budget be balanced. Now, the state Constitution demands only that the spending proposed by the governor in January be balanced by expected revenues.

Legislation to put the majority vote and balanced budget issues on a statewide ballot is introduced and rejected in a regular Capitol routine. But it’s time to make a change when it’s also become routine, so expected, for the Legislature and governor to fail in their responsibilities by missing the budget deadline.

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