Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor, California’s nonpartisan and reliably sensible fiscal watchdog, was correct in calling Gov. Jerry Brown’s first budget proposal a “good starting point” for rebuilding state government while also cautioning that it still carries too much risk and uncertainty.
Taylor backed Brown’s willingness to propose long-delayed deep program cuts in nearly every area of the state budget. But the legislative analyst warned that the governor’s package to close an estimated $25.4 billion shortfall over the next 18 months depends too much on $12 billion in questionable tax extensions that would go before the voters in a June special election.
Brown’s cutbacks would hit many popular and previously exempt programs. Brown said there is no longer any way to delay at least $12.5 billion in spending cuts on long-exempt services such as welfare, social services and higher education. There would be 10 percent cuts in state employee pay, cancellation of many state employee cars and cell phones and across-the-board departmental budget reductions.
However, if voters reject the attached five-year extension of expiring higher rates for California’s sales tax, income tax and vehicle license fee, the clear implication is that a new round of heavy cuts would target the K-12 schools, which were largely spared in the first budget draft.
Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway echoed the legislative analyst’s warning even more strongly. “The governor’s proposal hinges on voters extending tax hikes totaling more than $45 billion over five years,” Conway said. “However, there’s no plan for weaning big government off this funding if voters reject them or if the tax hikes expire.”
Yet another highly controversial element of Brown’s budget would shift more state responsibilities onto cash-strapped local governments. Such efforts have failed previously and are virtually guaranteed to be tied up with costly courtroom challenges for years.
The governor has laid out a bleakly realistic outlook for California’s deficit-crippled future. He insisted his plan offers Californians a direct choice of how much service they’re willing to pay for — but further delay of the tough choices is no longer possible.
Brown said, “It’s better to take our medicine now and get the state on a balanced footing. We’re very divided … I’m just going to lay out the facts. Whatever they [voters] decide, obviously will be the will.”
Predictably, Sacramento’s armada of special interests instantly went on record with indignant objections to just about every one of the proposed spending cuts and revenue increases. Any budgetary approach as draconian as what Brown is calling for will certainly have a rough time becoming law.
Yet it is obvious that only the strongest medicine can stop California’s uncontrolled drift towards becoming the first U.S. state to officially declare bankruptcy. Despite his plan’s significant flaws, Gov. Jerry Brown did a good thing by quickly opening up a serious discussion of the harsh realities our state must now face head-on.