A mess of contradictions

California is facing the worst budget crisis in modern his-tory: a shortfall of more than $14 billion over the next 18 months. And it was totally predictable.

In fact, it was predicted—way back in 2003, just days before Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor, by the state’s estimable legislative analyst, Elizabeth Hill. Unless spending and revenues were brought into line, she wrote then, California’s budget gap would be “in the range of $10 billion” in 2008-09.

Significantly, she also warned that if the governor rolled back the vehicle-license-fee increase then called for by law, the deficit would be $15 billion. Schwarzenegger immediately rolled back the fee, and here we are. (For a report on possible local impacts, see Newslines.)

There is blame aplenty to pass around. Year after year, the governor failed to attack the root causes of the chronic deficit, resorting instead to borrowing and budgetary sleight-of-hand to pay the bills. The two-thirds requirement to pass a budget in the Legislature gave minority Republicans the ability to nix any tax increase. And ballot-box budgeting that locked in huge spending requirements limited flexibility.

What’s the problem here? Why is the system so bollixed up?

Take a look in the mirror.

“Throw the bums out,” we the voters declared, and angrily passed feel-good term limits that keep lawmakers from developing the experience they need to make the system work. Or, when given a chance to get rid of the two-thirds stricture, via a 2004 ballot measure, we turned it down. And, as Proposition 92 indicates, we continue to try to write the budget in the voting booth.

The system is a mess because we’re a mess—of contradictions.

We want the services state government provides—indeed, more than it now provides. We want good schools, well-maintained roads, adequate water supplies, a health-care system that serves everyone and a criminal-justice system that really protects us. Surveys show that Californians want the state to spend more, not less, on these vital services.

But surveys also show that, when asked whether we’re willing to pay more in taxes, Californians’ responses range from ambivalent to downright negative. Remember how folks cheered when the governor rolled back the car fee?

“Cut government waste and trim the bureaucracy,” we say instead, as if that will solve the problem.

As evident in the governor’s proposal to reduce state spending by 10 percent across the board, that means cutting teachers, professors, Highway Patrol officers, health officials, prison guards, librarians and sheriff’s deputies as well as “bureaucrats,” whoever they are. It also means closing state parks, cutting Medi-Cal services and reimbursement rates, and releasing prisoners early. And it means not fixing the highways and schools, not cleaning the air and water, and not building a modern health-care system.

In the meantime, California is falling farther and farther behind the rest of the nation in the quality of those schools, colleges, health services and roads.

Our leaders won’t and can’t solve these problems until the rest of us understand the root cause: our own unwillingness to pay for the services we want and need.