There will be blame

California is facing the worst budget crisis in modern history: a shortfall of more than $14 billion over the next 18 months. And it was totally predictable.

In fact, it was predicted—way back in 2003, just days before Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor, by the state’s estimable legislative analyst, Elizabeth Hill. Unless spending and revenues were brought into line, she wrote then, California’s budget gap would be “in the range of $10 billion” in 2008-09.

Significantly, she also warned that if the governor rolled back the vehicle-license fee increase then called for by law, the deficit would be $15 billion. Schwarzenegger immediately rolled back the fee, and here we are.

There is blame aplenty to pass around. Year after year, the governor failed to attack the root causes of the chronic deficit, resorting instead to borrowing and budgetary sleight-of-hand to pay the bills. The two-thirds requirement to pass a budget in the Legislature gave minority Republicans the ability to nix any tax increase. And ballot-box budgeting that locked in huge spending requirements limited flexibility.

What’s the problem here? Why is the system so bollixed up?

Take a look in the mirror.

It began 30 years ago, when we the voters passed Proposition 13, which slashed property taxes and locked in state spending. The law led to a stream of ballot measures, a roller-coaster revenue cycle and, ultimately, the near-removal of budgeting authority from our elected leaders. As this last election’s Proposition 92 indicates, we continue to try to write the budget in the voting booth.

The system is a mess because we’re a mess—of contradictions.

We want the services state government provides—indeed, more than it now provides. We want good schools, adequate water supplies, a health-care system that serves everyone and a criminal-justice system that protects us without bankrupting the system. We want our state to invest in innovative, job-producing projects (such as high-speed rail) that promise big payoffs.

But surveys show that, when asked whether we’re willing to pay more in taxes, Californians’ responses range from ambivalent to downright negative.

“Cut government waste and trim the bureaucracy,” we say, as if that will solve the problem. Guess what? It won’t. We’re certainly against waste and don’t doubt cuts can be made. But the governor’s proposal—to reduce state spending by 10 percent across the board—means cutting teachers, health officials, librarians and sheriffs’ deputies as well as “bureaucrats,” whoever they are. It also means closing state parks and cutting Medi-Cal services and reimbursement rates. It means not fixing the highways and schools, not cleaning the air and water and not building a modern health-care system.

In the meantime, California is falling further and further behind the rest of the nation in the quality of those schools, colleges, health services and roads.

Our leaders won’t and can’t solve these problems until the rest of us understand the root cause is mixed up with our own unwillingness to face reality, even when that means we have to actually pay for the services we want and need.