State facing $21-billion budget gap


Less than four months after California leaders stitched together a patchwork budget, a projected deficit of nearly $21 billion already looms over Sacramento, according to a report to be released today by the chief budget analyst.

The new figure -- the nonpartisan analyst’s first projection for the coming budget -- threatens to send Sacramento back into budgetary gridlock and force more across-the-board cuts in state programs.

The grim forecast, described by people who were briefed on the report by Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor, comes courtesy of California’s recession-wracked economy, unrealistic budgeting assumptions, spending cuts tied up in the courts and disappearing federal stimulus funds.


“Economic recovery will not take away the very severe budget problems for this year, next year and the year after,” said Steve Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy.

In fact, after two years of precipitous revenue declines, the new report projects relatively stable tax collections for the state, said those who were briefed. But that won’t stop the deficit from climbing to nearly $21 billion.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who will present his next proposed budget to Californians in January as he begins his last year in office, started sounding the alarm last week.

“I think that there will be across-the-board cuts again,” he said at a San Jose news conference.

The task in 2010 could be even harder than it was this year, when record deficits and cash shortfalls drove California to issue IOUs for only the second time since the Great Depression. Lawmakers have already cut billions from education, healthcare and social services while temporarily hiking income, sales and vehicle taxes.

“I can’t think of any good solutions,” said Assemblywoman Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa), who chairs the lower house budget committee.


The current budget year accounts for $6.3 billion of the deficit, the nonpartisan analyst projects. Prisons spending will outstrip what has been budgeted by more than $1 billion, and K-12 schools were underpaid by $1 billion under the complex formula that governs education funding, the report says.

Another $14.4 billion of the deficit is for the fiscal year that begins next summer, say those briefed on the report. The governor’s next budget will have to account for both years.

The state Department of Finance in August predicted a shortfall of at least $7.4 billion for fiscal 2010-11. But California’s financial picture has darkened considerably since then, largely because the shaky summer budget pact relied heavily on borrowing, fiscal tricks and overly optimistic projections.

It assumed receipts of nearly $1 billion from the federal government for Medi-Cal that the analyst questions. Another $1 billion was assumed from the sale of a quasi-public workers’ compensation agency that has stalled.

Next year’s budget fight is expected to be as contentious as this year’s. Republicans vow to block new taxes; Democrats say they are through with program cuts.

Powerful interest groups are already girding for battle.

“There is no more to cut from our schools,” California Teachers Assn. President David Sanchez said Tuesday. “There is no more meat on this bone. . . . The next step is amputation.”

In higher education, Chancellor Charles Reed of the Cal State University system said this month that he will plead for $884 million in funds from Sacramento next year. The University of California will ask for $913 million more for its 10-campus system, President Mark Yudof has said.

“If ever there was a time to fight for and invest in the institution best positioned to power this state from recession, now is that time,” Yudof said in a statement. UC students, meanwhile, are coping with a staggering 32% fee hike.

California’s finances have been so bad that the governor’s finance director, Mike Genest, told a budget forum in Washington last week that back in February he had combed through the U.S. Constitution to research whether California could legally declare bankruptcy -- or revert to some kind of territorial status. (Neither was realistic, he determined.)

The state’s financial problems predate the current recession and the gimmicks used to paper over the deficit, experts say. Year in and year out, state government spends roughly $10 billion more than it collects in tax revenue.

Political divisions in Sacramento, where support from both parties is necessary to pass a budget, have repeatedly stymied efforts to plug that hole. The task probably won’t be easier next year as various interests try to muscle one another to the sidelines.

Some have even drafted potential ballot measures to aid themselves in the budget fight and are preparing to collect signatures in an effort to place the initiatives before voters.

Among the ideas: raising tobacco taxes, curbing public pensions, repealing corporate tax breaks passed this year and last, splitting the tax rules for commercial and residential property, reducing the legislative votes needed to pass a budget and strengthening the firewall around local government and transportation money.

“There’s a lot of people putting chess pieces on the board right now,” said Jon Coupal, president of the anti-tax Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. “The question is which of those chess pieces will be moving.”