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A harsh but realistic state budget

Of course Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year is harsh. His only choices were to be harsh or out of balance. As with the current budget, he chose a measure of each for 2012-13: dire cuts to social services and higher education — that’s the harsh part — balanced on predictions for tax revenue from a recovering economy that are a bit too rosy, plus speculative voter approval of a new tax bracket for top earners and a three-year sales tax increase of a half-cent on the dollar. If the money doesn’t come in or the tax increases aren’t approved, the budget gets even harsher: “trigger cuts” that slash K-12 education, courts and other programs and services essential to residents’ collective well-being.

Lawmakers will no doubt see that Brown’s budget is politically savvy. It throws red meat to Californians who are being hurt by the dragging economy and by unemployment, and who meanwhile nurse resentment toward working government employees and welfare recipients. It reduces the state workforce by about 3,000 positions. It eliminates or consolidates some cabinet-level agencies and slashes 39 other boards and departments. It deeply cuts support for underemployed parents and their children, for medical care for the indigent, and for seniors and the disabled who would prefer to have care in their homes rather than be sent to nursing homes.

It holds deeper cuts to elementary, middle and high schools in abeyance: No more cuts if the money turns up; a three-week lop in the school year if it doesn’t.

It’s a cold but realistic budget. It can be better, smarter, more constructive and more forward-looking, less cynical and less political. If lawmakers aren’t judicious, it can also be filled with special favors, as budgets often are, for the already powerful at the expense of average Californians and people in need. Whether it gets better or worse is now a matter to be determined by the Legislature.

Lawmakers should consider who is affected, and how readily those people can recover. For example, university students will no doubt be hurt by higher tuition and fewer classes, and in coming years the state will certainly suffer the consequences of the California State University and University of California systems giving opportunities to fewer residents. Budget cuts in higher education have a cost. But a student’s dream of a higher education can be deferred a year or two, or rebuilt around a new plan, a different school, a delayed diploma.

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By contrast, a sixth-grader or a 10th-grader who doesn’t get the math or English education he or she needs, or who loses three weeks of learning when the brain is most in need and most able to absorb, may be set back for life. Brown’s choice is the right one: Keep K-12 funding intact as long as possible, and make up the difference for now from higher education.

The governor’s proposed social services cuts, however, are unwise for precisely the same reason. Loss of medical care now for indigent patients will mean their lives are not merely on hold but forever set back and perhaps prematurely ended. The same is true for seniors and others who need in-home care. Slashing or ending that care means people in need will have to go to nursing homes, which can also be on the state tab but are more expensive. This penny-wise, pound-foolish move pencils out only when nursing home care, when compared with in-home care, is so poor that patients die sooner. That cynical ploy to save money is hardly California’s smartest budget move.

Loss of aid for jobless or underskilled and underemployed parents can mean a permanent setback for their children and, consequently, for California’s future. Also, a move that helps the state budget balance doesn’t necessarily help taxpayers, especially if their county tab for homelessness or general relief goes up. The state and county — and city and school and special district — budgets are all one big budget system, and Californians do not come out ahead just because their state budget leaves a dime in one pocket while their county budget is forced to take it from the other.

At the same time, lawmakers must resist demands from service providers for higher rates and wages. The recovery is not yet upon us, and the state’s first duty in restoring service must be to those in need, not to those who are in the business of serving them. Yes, higher rates and wages can put more money back into the economy, and yes, people who provide service under contract are hurting too. But we don’t have that money, so there’s nothing right now to be put back in.

The same goes for state employees. As jobs are cut, the salary savings are already accounted for; they cannot be turned into higher wages or retirement benefits. But Californians also must disabuse themselves of the well-nurtured fiction that state government is larded with an excess of workers. This state has the nation’s fourth-lowest ratio of all non-federal public employees — state, city, county, schools, special districts — to residents. We cannot simultaneously complain about an imaginary bloated public workforce and very real cuts to essentials such as schools and birthright amenities such as parks. The paring of some costs, such as prisons, may become permanent as much of the incarceration mission moves to the county level. But some cuts in employee costs must eventually be restored.

Nor should Californians allow themselves to be fooled into believing that the current budget crisis is due to greedy public retirees gobbling up larger chunks of the budget each year. There is indeed a pension problem looming, and it requires thoughtful planning and action, but it hasn’t hit yet. Current retiree payments account for about the same small portion of the annual budget that they always have.

Brown’s instinct is correct. He’s eliminating programs that are not part of the state’s core mission, and he’s planning for a more abundant future. But he can do more to protect Californians in need, and to remind the rest of us what we still need government to do.


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