Dithering at State Expense

Cut, cut, cut, and then cut some more. That's what the Legislature should be doing, both in the current budget and the one for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Instead, it's been dither, dither, dither.

Every day of dithering costs the state millions of dollars as it spends mythical funds that will have to be covered by borrowing. The shortfall for the next 16 months has been forecast at anywhere from $26 billion (the legislative analyst) to $35 billion (the governor). Either figure, excised from a budget of less than $100 billion, is almost incomprehensible. No honest forecast has the economy recovering enough this year to sizably dent the shortfall.

The one tiny spot of good news is that the Legislature finally passed and sent to Gov. Gray Davis a measure to trim $3.5 billion from this year's spending, but it's still just one-third or less of the cuts needed. Republicans -- who irrationally insist the budget gap can be closed with cuts alone -- made a smart PR move in proposing that Davis get authority to cut spending without legislative approval, something Davis asked for early this year. Democrats won't support it, but it gives the GOP protection against charges that it is refusing to cooperate. In the end, Davis will still have to negotiate reductions with his own party leaders.

The state of those negotiations is grim. Senate Democrats postponed any votes on next year's budget until next month. Some Democrats have rebelled at any cuts in public health care, but no major department, including health and education, can go unscathed.

Some cuts are obvious, such as slowing down highway building and easing class-size reduction. Make them now. Legislators should also quit proposing in-depth hearings on how efficiently each department spends its allotment. A month would be barely enough time to begin such a process. Anyway, that's what budget committees do, and they have already started.

Republicans are not much help, with their repetitive charges that the shortfall is all Davis' fault and with their refusal to discuss any new taxes or fees. Assembly GOP leader Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks) can't get beyond the age-old demand to cut "waste, fraud and abuse." Once substantial cuts have been decided, Democrats and GOP moderates will have solid moral standing to demand revenue increases as well.

Term limits have erased a lot of institutional knowledge and expertise from the Legislature, but even the 30 first-termers in the Assembly should know by now where cuts can be made and have to be made. Davis has offered a complete list of proposed cuts in his budget document. Legislative Analyst Elizabeth G. Hill offers $3 billion more optional cuts in her book, "The 2003-04 Budget: Perspectives and Issues," Pages 156 to 168. There's no magic involved. Legislators are elected to make budget decisions in good times and bad. Complaining and delaying won't change that.

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