Boning up on the state budget

Expert shines light on a complex subject

Say the words “state budget,” and most people’s eyes glaze over. They know the budget affects the quality of our schools and roads, water and air, but they don’t understand how it works.

Jean Ross spends much her time trying to explain it to people. She’s the executive director of the California Budget Project, a respected nonpartisan group that analyzes budgets—state and national—to gauge their impacts on society. She was in Chico last Thursday (April 28) to participate in a forum at the City Council chambers sponsored by the Northern California State Budget Alliance.

Why, Ross asked, is the state looking at a $27 billion budget shortfall? In a nutshell: the recession. “If the bottom had not dropped out [of the economy], we would be rolling in money,” she said. California is not alone; all but two states, Wyoming and North Dakota, are facing budget crunches.

It doesn’t help that California has been cutting taxes in recent years, she said. In the 1990s the tax breaks went “to people like us,” but lately they’ve been going to big corporations. “That’s one of the things that make it tough to get a balanced budget, because we all have a stake in it.”

Another problem: Polls show that, of the four major budget categories—K-12 education, health and human services, higher education and prisons—people are comfortable cutting only prisons. But prisons constitute only 11 percent of the budget, not even close to the amount needed, even if we got rid of them altogether.

Ross considers Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to erase the deficit half with cuts and half with an extension of certain temporary taxes “a fairly well-balanced approach.” The Legislature has approved most of his $12.5 billion package of cuts, but Republicans are blocking the tax extensions. The alternative is an “all-cuts” budget, which the Legislative Analyst’s Office reckons will slash $5.2 billion from schools and an additional $1.1 billion from higher education. The Chico Unified School District would face a $10.2 million cut, Ross said.

In her 20 years of working with budgets, Ross said, “this is the one year when the decisions we make will be most important to the future of the state.”

Where’s Wally? After talking with Rep. Herger’s communications director, Matt Lavoie, I can report that he’s back in Washington after spending a couple of weeks in the district. Lavoie said he met with chambers of commerce and Tea Party groups but did not hold one of his usual town hall meetings.

He was lying low, in other words. Herger voted for the House budget bill, which means he supports privatizing Medicare. Polls show that’s about as popular as President George W. Bush’s DOA push to privatize Social Security, an effort that Herger had to defend against angry criticism at town hall meetings.

First he wants to do away with Social Security as we know it, and now Medicare. It makes me wonder why so many older folks vote for this guy. He’s not their friend, and neither is his party.

Robert Speer is editor of the CN&R.