A budget how-to: cut evenly, then go home
California’s thirteenth-hour budget battle has lost any laugh value it might have acquired over the years. As state employees and vendors fear for their paychecks, we are expected to weep for the Prisoners of Perata, the state senators who were held hostage during Friday’s overnight “lockdown” of the Capitol. In the predawn, Assembly members adopted a so-called compromise involving a billion-dollar raid on transportation funds and a half-billion-dollar giveaway to select businesses.
No wonder their next act was to adjourn and scatter before sunrise. Surely Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) knew that such a giveaway didn’t stand a chance in a budget that delays cost-of-living increases for California’s most needy. As expected, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) declared the giveaway “dead on arrival” while ordering the Senate chamber doors locked.
So after the fluke of 2006, when the budget was signed on time, we’re back to missed deadlines, pandering, posturing, fiscal bloodletting and a remaining budget shortfall in the neighborhood of $2 billion. The irony is that the simplest solution is one that neither the Republicans (who have offered few details on what programs they’d like to cut) nor the Democrats and the governor (who see the task of fiscal stewardship as an exercise in creative accounting) will countenance: an across-the-board spending reduction that cuts equally from every dollar the state pays out.
The negotiation over the budget is the political equivalent of a Middle Eastern bazaar. In addition to the transportation-funds grab -- an outrageous act in a state where voters have repeatedly expressed their will that transportation funds be protected from exactly this kind of trickery -- legislators have proposed balancing the budget with cuts to services for the homeless mentally ill, the elderly and higher education. They also want to provide some tax breaks to Hollywood studios that would widen the gap between revenues and outlays.
There appear to be no real structures on which to build the final compromise. Inquiries into profligate overspending go wanting for a forum. The stark reality is as Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) reports: In 2003, Gray Davis spent $8.80 out of every $100 we earned; Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is now spending $9.58. Promises made are ripe for breaking almost as soon as the gubernatorial ink is dry, and principles touted as rock solid bend and break like so much kelp in a stormy sea.
Couldn’t legislative leaders have found some leadership and creativity driven by enlightened self-interest. After all, don’t these same leaders intend to ask voters to alter term limits to extend their service? Do they really believe that this budget morass induces confidence in voters? Maybe they do, in which case we have uncovered the problem: It is clinical -- they’re delusional. So hopelessly muddled has this year’s exercise become that Perata was prompted to observe that “we don’t know where we are. I have no idea.”
Wherever we are, I have a suggestion as to where we ought to be going and how to get there. Referring to $2 billion as a relatively small amount of money should shock the conscience of any taxpayer, but, compared with a $140-billion budget, it is. The governor and the Legislature should do what any responsible California family does: cut expenses to meet anticipated revenues. Do it equitably and fairly across the board. The mega-shortfalls of the past may have made such fairness too difficult; the gap this year is manageable.
In fact, because we know California voters take a decidedly dim view of raids on transportation funds, put that billion dollars back where it belongs. After all, Californians pay the third-highest tax per gallon of gasoline in the country, but we rank 43rd in our per capita spending on highways. Now close the gap in the budget by cutting expenses across the board -- no exceptions -- and go home.
Gene Burns is a host at KGO Radio in San Francisco