With his State of the City address, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa positioned himself to conclude his mayoralty with a sustained effort to reform Los Angeles' schools. That was well received by leaders of the Los Angeles Unified School District, who welcome a high-wattage supporter for their difficult work, but it was regarded with some concern at City Hall, where the mayor's leadership and attention are needed to confront a historic budget challenge. Some council members and others worried that Villaraigosa, stymied by the difficulty of balancing the budget, was turning to schools as a way of changing the subject.
Meeting with Times editors on Thursday, Villaraigosa acknowledged the enormity of the financial challenge and pledged to deliver. Indeed, he already has made some progress toward addressing the problem, helping to persuade voters to pass a police and fire pension proposal that will ease the city's obligations as new hires are added to those departments. In addition, Villaraigosa and Council President Eric Garcetti negotiated a deal with the city's largest civilian union under which members will begin making modest contributions to their retirement healthcare fund. That deal for the first time would commit city workers to helping to pay for their healthcare costs in retirement.
Those are incremental steps toward eliminating a shortfall of roughly $350 million, but they are important ones. On Thursday, Villaraigosa said his budget proposal, which he intends to discuss more fully next week, will contain additional cuts and structural reforms that will further close the budget gap while, he insisted, maintaining the size of the Los Angeles Police Department and stepping up the pace of filling the city's potholes. He says he is committed to leaving the next mayor — the race to succeed him is already taking shape and the election is in 2013 — a budget that is on sounder footing.
Villaraigosa's record on the budget is mixed. Hiring and raises early in his tenure have worsened the budget shortfalls that he's faced since the economy nosedived, but he's also done a commendable job of finding money for the LAPD and reaping public safety rewards as a result. This year's spending plan offers him an opportunity to right the city's finances before beginning to move offstage.
His devotion to education is laudable, in part because it's outside his formal responsibilities as mayor. His obligation to set the city's finances in order, however, is at the core of his job. For the sake of Los Angeles and his legacy, Villaraigosa needs to deliver a sound and sustainable budget that at last confronts the city's budgetary challenge forthrightly.