Tight fists vs. spendthrifts

State revenues should cover expenses. But the balance will vanish if a bunch of stuff doesn't break California's way.

Budgets bite. Mainly because spending can’t be more than money received. Budgets allow for spending on some fun stuff, but require saying no to other good stuff, which is usually the really super primo good stuff, since that’s the only stuff for which there never seems to be enough money available in the budget.

For almost all Californians, budgeting means choices among lots of painfully real stuff. Rent, mortgage, sustenance, electricity, gasoline, heat, phone service, medical necessities and dozens of other exigencies. Ugly Hobson’s choices are made monthly, often daily.

So when government whimpers about its budget woes, there’s scant sympathy.

First, the numbers are so huge they’re meaningless. Sure, winners on Celebrity Javelin Catching or Dancing With the Wolverines can pocket seven figures. But $1 million isn’t even walking-around money for the federal government, which gets to “solve” its budget issues by printing more money.

To cover annual deficits the federal government has sold more than $10 trillion in debt. That’s quite the epic wad. Stack 10 trillion $1 bills and it would be 678,660 miles tall. Lay those $10 trillion in Washingtons end to end, and it’s a little more than 969 million miles. Five round trips to the sun. Using time increments, 10 trillion seconds is roughly Keith Richards’ age: 316,880.

This year, the feds are supposed to make a $1 trillion down payment on their debt. There was talk of minting a $1 trillion platinum coin to cover the nut. Several visionaries suggested Alfred E. Neuman grace the coin because his “What, me worry?” mantra is a more apropos motto for the United States than “In God We Trust.” But the coin idea got scotched.

Gov. Jerry “Diogenes-With-Charm” Brown recently laid out his state blueprint for spending $139 billion during the fiscal year beginning July 1, and ending June 30, 2014.

The $139 billion—$99 billion in income, sales and business taxes and the remainder in fees and assessments—is more than $9 billion more than is being spent this year, in which lawmakers closed a $15.7 billion budget gap.

Most of this new money would be given to public schools, community colleges and state universities, who at the same time must become more efficient, says Brown. No epic badness was dumped on the millions of poor who receive health care through the state or financial support from welfare. The dumping has been done previously.

For the first time in nearly a decade, revenues are predicted to cover expenses. But that balance could vanish if a bunch of stuff doesn’t break California’s way, like how the feds deal with their debt ceiling.

Given that uncertainty, Brown says that when it comes to budgeting, lawmakers should behave like most Californians must: with unremitting, even if undesired, tightfistedness.

Democrats want some programs restored that were whacked in past years, such as the Healthy Families Program, which offers state-subsidized medical care to low-income children and their families.

Lawmakers can put the program in their budget plan, but if Brown doesn’t dig something, he’ll just line it out. Will the two-thirds Democratic majority in the Legislature override him? Doubtful. That leaves Brown with the last word, and he says it will most likely be “no.”

But this is the beginning of the annual budget dance, the posturing and postulating waltz. The Legislature’s deadline to complete its work is June 15. While much of the big-ticket spending priorities won’t change, legislative and gubernatorial agendas can morph significantly in five months. The June budget will reflect that—as well as updated revenue estimates.

By the way: 139 billion $1 bills laid end to end would stretch 13.5 million miles, roughly the distance between Barstow and Las Vegas. In terms of time, 139 billion seconds is 4,448 years—the average length of an Assembly debate on California’s annual spending bill.