OK, you fix the budget!
What’s the right mix, for California, of spending cuts and new revenue?
Entering the Capitol is like passing through a membrane into an alternate universe. In our reality, folks try to scratch together the dough to cover the $72 SMUD bill, the $1,100 rent, the $48 cell bill, and have enough silver left to put a few bites on the table and a couple gallons in the car.
In the Capitol, relief is expressed when something is only a $1 billion problem. Programs with a $7 million price tag are referred to as “budget dust”—even though many millions of Californians would gladly sweep up a fraction of that dust for themselves.
So when Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature’s solons announce the Not-So-Golden State is staring down into a $26 billion budget abyss, it’s kinda hard to comprehend. Certainly, that’s a fair chunk of change. Laying $26 billion $1 bills end to end stretches 2,462,121 miles. That’s roughly 500 round trips from Los Angeles to New York, five round trips to the moon and 27,979 miles short of 100 circumnavigations of the globe. California’s shortfall is bigger than the entire budgets of 38 other states, including Maryland, Connecticut and Minnesota.
Sounds like fiscal DefCon1 with an Armageddon chaser. Actually, it’s kind of a phony number. What the $26 billion represents is just how awful a place California will be at the end of the state’s next fiscal year—June 30, 2012—if the Legislature and the Democratic governor don’t do a damn thing. For better or for worse, at some point over the next 17 months they’re going to do something to knock that number down. Brown is urging the Legislature to agree on a plan by the beginning of March.
With that kind of—some would say overly—optimistic timeline, the denizens of the alternate universe need all the help they can get from us in this reality.
Hence, the spread you’ll find on the next two pages.
In principle, balancing a budget is fairly pedestrian. Spend less money. Bring in more money. Or a combination thereof. Yep, it’s that easy. Especially when that choice making involves simply turning to a loved one and saying, “Dude, we gotta blow off that Gogol Bordello show and try to land a part-time gig waiting tables.” In the Capitol’s alternate universe, however, it’s infinitely more complicated. Scads of interest groups zealously guard their turf—from pets to pensions—clawing out the eyes of their enemies and ruthlessly trying to goad 120 lawmakers to do their bidding while a harried chief executive struggles to herd cats to common ground. It is Quasimodo-ugly, played-for-keeps and has a swirling mass of ever-changing parts. Not conducive to easy resolution. Of anything.
Brown’s message is everyone must share the pain. And there’s plenty of pain in the 72-year-old governor’s proposal—particularly for the poor. Welfare recipients, a little less than 1 million of whom are children, would be cut back to four years of eligibility from five—retroactively. The monthly maximum check for a family of three would fall from $694 to $604 in high-cost counties, although about 22 percent of that is offset by an increase in money from CalFresh, what old farts think of as food stamps. Together, the two actions save $1.2 billion. Elderly and poor? Live with someone else? Forget subsidized in-home meal preparation, laundry cleaning or housekeeping. Nixing that saves $237 million. Developmentally disabled? Brown wants to save $750 million by “streamlining” services. Persons using Medi-Cal, the state’s health-care program for the poor, would only be able to see a doctor or visit a clinic 10 times a year and pay $5 for each visit. A C-note if they’re unfortunate enough to land in the hospital. That saves around $500 million. Tally the score: roughly $2.7 billion. Only $23.3 billion to go.
Not so good for students neither. Fee increases at UC and CSU. A $10 fee increase for community-college students, although, like the budget number, that is not as awful as it appears, since one-third of community-college students get fees waived for financial hardship and another third pay nothing because of various federal tax breaks. Even so, $36 a unit looks a lot more expensive than $26. Perhaps because it is.
With Brown’s plan, a little more than one-third of the budget hole would be filled by keeping taxes that are supposed to disappear this year in place for another five. A 1 cent higher sales tax, a 0.25 percent “surcharge” on state income taxes, vehicle license fees of 1.15 percent instead of 0.65 percent and less of a tax write-off for little kiddos. Ballpark—$9.3 billion. Voters have to buy into it on the ballot in June along with redirecting some money that’s supposed to go to preschool and mental-health programs to pay for similar efforts currently bankrolled by the state’s cash-starved general fund. If voters don’t go along, the cuts Brown proposes will double the hurt, including a $2.3 billion whack at public schools that have borne the double-digit billion-dollar brunt of state cutbacks over the past three years. Brown’s number crunchers are working up an all-cut budget. It’s so horrific, Brown says, he doesn’t want to reveal it.
There’s nothing magic about the governor’s plan. It ain’t chiseled in stone by the hand of God. Not by any means. It just happens to be his opening gambit. The money bet is that lawmakers won’t go along with all of this proposal, particularly some of the safety net scale-backs. A cornucopia of alternatives abound, ranging from legalizing and taxing marijuana—around $1.3 billion—to closing some prisons and eliminating what some would call “corporate tax loopholes.” The beneficiaries of these gifts of public funds, of course, see the cash as vital to “economic stimulus,” particularly since there’s no requirement they stimulate the economy by putting some of the state’s $2.3 million unemployed to work.
So what’s the right mix?
Wanna end “tax giveaways”? The biggest by far—$5.1 billion—is the interest deduction on a home mortgage. Tube the Renter’s Credit? Whack the subsidy for child care? Or tax those soulless corporate greedheads until their bloated salary chief executives bleed from the eyes? At some point, unless you’re a farmer, the cost of doing business gets too high and companies split, taking with them whatever jobs remain after the ones they already shed to maintain the bottom line. Conversely, maybe four years on welfare instead of five will be a powerful motivator to get a J-O-B, although about 35 percent of the folks on the state dole already work.
In this reality, unlike that in the White Sepulcher, decision making is not hobbled by cheesy political worries like winning re-election to preserve four more years of snout-in-trough or staying chummy with campaign-contribution check writers. Here, in this reality, it’s purely head and heart.
So, OK, you do it. Find an honest mix. And balance the budget.