It's difficult to remember a time when state lawmakers went about the business of passing an annual budget with efficiency and discipline. In fact, did such a time ever exist? Perhaps there's a gray-hair out there who can tell us about the olden days when California's legislators weren't so paralyzed amid the politics and were able to match revenues with expenditures and actually have a budget in place the day a new fiscal year began.
We don't believe it's the fault of individual legislators; rather, it's the machinery that's broken. Not only do we lump together two ideologically opposite groups of elected officials and then pit them against one another, but we complicate matters by making it so that they can't keep their jobs without accepting money from groups of people—special interests—who are even more ideologically entrenched and whose only goal is to protect their respective members. For good measure, we make the budget task even harder by allowing ourselves—the voters—to toss all manner of restrictions and mandates into the ring.
Then we get pissed off when lawmakers can't get it done. Currently, only 30 percent of the state's registered voters think the Legislature is doing a good job, according to a June Field poll. Only 41 percent of voters like the job Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's doing—and he's the Terminator, for heaven's sake.
But we Californians aren't helping matters. We're giving our representatives in Sacramento mixed messages. Another recent Field poll reveals that we'd like the politicians to fix the current $15.2 billion deficit with spending cuts rather than tax hikes. But when asked where we'd like to start cutting, we lose our nerve. We don't want cuts to any of the state's 13 general service categories. Don't even think about touching education and healthcare, we say. And though we're a little bit looser on prisons and welfare, we'd prefer it if those areas were spared the knife, as well. Then, in the comments sections on news websites, the more high-strung among us call our leaders “idiots” and “morons” because they can't seem to pass a balanced budget. Great—thanks for the help.
In the absence of fundamental reform, lawmakers resort to what would have to be seen from afar as slapstick problem solving. We borrow from the future (bonds). We play shell games (counting next year's revenue as this year's). We rob Peter (cities and counties) to pay Paul (state services). We even consider expanding the lottery in order to keep the government running. Why do scenes from the Charlie Chaplin movie Modern Times keep popping into our heads? Can't you just see legislators wearing little top hats and running around really fast and getting stuck in the gears and conveyer belts and whatnot?
Reportedly, about half the budget deficit is structural, meaning it's chronic; the other half is attributable to the economic downturn. The solution to each problem seems obvious: Fix the former by deciding what services should be provided to the citizens and levying enough taxes to fund them, and fix the latter by setting aside enough money to weather long-term economic ups and downs.
Whenever we think hard about the budget woes, we settle on two words: Start over. Begin again from scratch.
Prioritize needs starting with the basics: Education, healthcare, water delivery and public safety, and then go from there. How much do those items cost? That's how much we taxpayers have to pony up.
Legislative leaders have made noises about establishing commissions that would do something like that. As noted by the Union-Tribune's Ed Mendel this week, about a year ago, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata called for creation of a budget reform panel, but his idea got lost amid other political business. And new Assembly Speaker Karen Bass wants a commission to study the tax code—with an eye toward broadening the base of taxable services to include such things as legal counsel, accounting advice, haircuts and pet grooming. Those services are taxed in some other states, but not here.
Of course, saying we'd like such commissions to fix these problems lickety-split and to whistle a happy melody while they work is not the same as saying we have the confidence that it can actually happen. Why? Because of voter-approved restrictions and mandates (Prop. 13, Prop. 98, etcetera) and because lobbyists who represent major campaign contributors will get in the way. And they will continue to do so unless the courts stop equating campaign donations with free speech.
Meantime, Democrats say they want to maintain services, but their solution—soaking the rich—while satisfying, exacerbates the volatile tax paradigm. The Republicans say they want to cut spending, but their solution simply shifts the burden to emergency rooms and prisons of the future.
Schwarzenegger says he's almost ready to tell the legislators to lock themselves in a room and stay there until they have a budget deal for the new fiscal year. We concur. But that's the easy part. The hard work comes with solving the long-term problem.
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