Grinch steals 2003

Ugly. Awful. Unprecedented. There’s no way to put a good spin on what’s about to happen to California by way of solving what is arguably the state’s worst budget crisis ever.

Legislators must find a way to fill a money hole that is now estimated at $34.8 billion. As the state’s capital city, Sacramento soon will become ground zero for one of the most grueling and bloody legislative battles ever.

Yes, Sacramento politics 2003 are going to be grim and grimmer—all about where to slash, whom to tax and what to spare. In Christmas blockbuster parlance, the coming legislative clash is going to make Aragorn’s battle at Helm’s Deep look like a kindergarten playground squabble. And no one doubts that a host of lobbyists and citizen protesters will storm Sacramento in the New Year in an attempt to save particular programs from the chopping block.

Governor Gray Davis and the Democrats are going to propose a solution that involves cuts, reinstatement of old taxes and introduction of new taxes. But because new taxes require a two-thirds vote in the Legislature, they won’t be passed without support from the other side of the aisle. So far, the Republicans have made it crystal clear they will resist any and all new tax hikes.

When the governor came out last month with suggestions for more than $10 billion in first-round cuts, that was just an initial warning of how profoundly affected we’re going to be in 2003. Davis’ cuts would hurt and sometimes eliminate many of the state’s health-care, education and transportation initiatives, especially ones that have helped California’s low-income families. For example: A successful program that provides child care for the state’s welfare-to-work moms seems to be first on the chopping block.

Calling this a “season of bad choices” for California, political analyst Bill Bradley wrangled with the budget in last week’s LA Weekly. He described possible budget-saving scenarios in a way that makes the enormity of California’s problem unmistakable. To fill the hole, he conjured, the Legislature could reinstate the top bracket of the income tax, thereby raising $3.1 billion; restore the full vehicle-license fee, raising $3.9 billion; agree to Davis’ previously proposed cigarette tax of 50 cents a pack, raising perhaps $2 billion; and hope the California Taxpayers Association is correct when it claims that $7 billion could be saved by cutting away fraud and waste in state government. Even with all that, they’ve come up with only $16 billion toward a deficit more than double that size.

Add on the $10 billion in excruciating cuts that Davis has proposed already, and you’re still almost $9 billion short.

In a perfect world, we could trust our state’s leaders to possess the wisdom, smarts and guts it surely will take to solve this crisis without permanently damaging the state and its citizenry. In our imperfect world, as we look toward the grim reality of 2003, let’s at least hope our legislators aim before they shoot.