Facing the pain

Brown’s austerity budget is on the right track, at least

Everybody, it seems, hates Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed state budget. Democrats believe its $12.5 billion in spending cuts will shred the social safety net and be ruinous to higher education. Republicans are convinced its continuation of temporary tax increases enacted in 2009—worth around $9 billion in revenue—will be harmful to the state’s economy.

As Brown himself acknowledges, there’s more than enough pain to go around in this budget.

But he’s on the right track. For the first time in years, the Legislature is being presented with an honest budget, one that would largely resolve the state’s structural deficit of around $25 billion until the economy recovers. It’s going to hurt, and hurt bad, but with polls showing voters favoring a combination of cuts and revenue increases to address the deficit, there are few options.

The budget also comes with a big “if.” Brown wants voters to decide, in a special June election, whether to continue the 2009 taxes. If they say no, the budget hole will be $9 billion deeper, and the pain will become torment. The current proposal, which cuts higher-education funding by nearly 25 percent, largely spares K-12 schools, but if voters turn thumbs down on the tax continuation, Brown will have little choice but to fill that hole with K-12 funds.

Right now the biggest problem is that Republican lawmakers are refusing even to put the tax vote on the ballot. Continuing to insist that the state has “a spending problem, not a revenue problem,” they want the entire $25 billion to come from cuts. But that “spending problem” is universities and colleges, health care and prisons, parks and highways and high schools. Apparently, they would rather dismantle state and local government than allow citizens to vote on whether to pay taxes.

We believe there are potential new revenue sources—an oil-extraction tax, for example, or extending the sales tax to some services—that would not harm the economic recovery and would ease the pain of the cuts. But we understand that it’s easier for voters to accept taxes they already are paying than to vote for new ones.

In any event, it’s time for all parties to transcend their parochialism and do what’s needed. The governor’s budget is still a proposal; it can and will be changed in the coming weeks. But we should all support him in principle, at least.