Budget memento

You’d think we’d be used to it by now.

Every year, the deadline for a state budget comes—and goes—surrounded by a whole boatload of finger pointing and recriminations, threats and counterthreats. Then there are the unpaid bills to consider.

And generally by the time the young ’uns head back to school, there’s some cobbled-together piece of legislation, yet another in a long line of Rube Goldberg-like plans held together with spit and baling wire, that provides just enough semblance of fiscal sense to pass muster. If you’re nearsighted and can’t add, that is.

Then the process starts all over again for next year.

The fundamental problem, all agree, is a structural one. Some argue that legislators are hamstrung by the requirement for a supermajority to pass the budget. Others suggest that the budgetary process is hobbled by the rattling chains of Proposition 13.

But at its heart, California’s trouble is that we want what we want, and we want someone else to pay for it. This time of year, someone’s always blaming someone else for the budget mess. But they’re wrong.

First, these are tough economic times, and if regular people have to cut back to make it, then the state should, too. That even means that some good programs may have to be cut in order to keep the most necessary ones.

Second, no matter how much the cheap-labor, big-business faction screams, taxes are not evil. Taxes are the dues we pay for a society we’re willing to live in, and if you want to live in a feudal state, there are a number of them accepting emigrants. If, instead, California’s citizens would prefer to live in a state where the sick, aged, poor and disabled are properly cared for, where the infrastructure works and the children have schoolbooks, then we’d damn well be ready to pay for it with taxes.

So there are not two but three big changes for us to make. Ending the supermajority requirement, which allows for the minority to block a sensible budget until their pet projects are in it, is the first step. Follow that with another look at Proposition 13 and an understanding that we’ll have to generate revenue in an honest fashion (and quit sneaking more “fees” in—if we’re paying taxes, let’s just pay ’em).

And finally, let’s figure out what really matters. Do we really want the elderly woman whose only regular contact—and hot meal—is with Meals on Wheels to go without? How about the small, nonprofit clinics that provide everything from vaccinations to first aid to our poorest citizens, often children? If the answer is yes, then we’d better find ways to pay for it—if that means cutting subsidies elsewhere, then so be it. If it means raising taxes, then that’s what we’ll have to do.

Or we can just keep doing what we’re doing—borrowing from a future that always arrives too quickly, with an empty wallet. That might be the American way of budgeting, but it doesn’t seem to be doing very well for California.