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A Davis Budget, End to End

Gov. Gray Davis proved anew his fiscal restraint by trimming $585 million from the Legislature’s version of the state budget Tuesday, including making cuts in health and welfare spending that angered some Democratic leaders. Still, the final $81.3-billion budget, which finances state operations beginning Thursday, is a sound document, built on burgeoning state revenues. It significantly boosts state aid to public schools, as Davis promised, and is refreshingly generous to natural resources, one area that has been starved in recent years.

Davis signed the budget bill into law in a ceremony on the Capitol steps that resembled a White House Rose Garden event with an audience of legislators, veterans, schoolchildren and government workers. It was a bit of excess, but Davis was entitled to some bragging.

The budget was the first to meet the June 30 deadline since 1993, he noted. For this, Davis shares credit with the chairs of the Senate and Assembly budget committees. In the past, Californians have rapped governors and lawmakers sharply in the opinion polls for failing to pass budgets on time. That is, after all, one of the few duties required of them by the state Constitution.

The budget process this year was made easier by the fact that Democrats control the governorship and both houses of the Legislature. The skids were further greased by a boisterous California economy that pumped an unexpected $4.3 billion into the state treasury. It would have been easy to please everyone by splurging on the big tax reductions that Republicans wanted and the new spending programs that Democrats sought.

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Davis rejected that course from the outset. He prudently limited half the surplus spending to one-time allocations, such as $159 million to conserve coastal, wildlife and recreational lands. Davis also approved $137 million for one-time maintenance and rehabilitation of a state park system that is in sore need of repair. An additional $881 million went into a reserve against emergencies--another element of sound budgeting, although many experts recommend an even larger rainy-day fund.

There is significant new help for local governments, including $150 million in one-time aid. Unfortunately, Davis rejected a proposed cap on the amount of local property tax the state has taken annually since the recession of the early 1990s.

Budgets are political documents that reflect the state’s needs through the eyes of its elected leaders. This is a Davis budget through and through. Priority goes to the schools. After that, give some here, give some there, but don’t commit to major new programs that tend to grow as the years go by. This is a sound budget philosophy for California.


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