If it’s January it must be budget time in California, or so it would seem. Gov. Gavin Newsom held a press briefing to unveil his proposed budget, and it certainly looked official.
Mainstream media have variously reported that the governor’s budget proposal is “austere,” “fiscally responsible,” and even “conservative” as the state tries to close a projected $22.5 billion deficit. But there are things taxpayers should know before breaking out the champagne to celebrate the governor’s handling of what he has called a “modest shortfall.”
A spending problem, not a revenue problem.
The governor’s proposed $297 billion budget is only about 3.6% smaller than last year’s record-setting budget of $308 billion. The state has long spent beyond its means, but it has kicked it into overdrive in recent years. In just the last three years alone, spending has increased by almost $100 billion dollars despite warnings from economists, the Legislative Analyst’s Office, HJTA and many others that the state was spending beyond sustainable revenue levels.
This is not the real budget.
They may call this a budget, but it is just a wish list. It is a way for the governor to signal his priorities to the Legislature as budget negotiations begin, and legislators from the governor’s own party have already been critical of the cuts he is proposing.
We also do not know what the actual dollar amount will be yet. In November, the budget shortfall was estimated to be around $24 billion. The governor now says it is $22.5 billion. We will have a better idea of where the state stands financially when the governor does his “May Revise” of the budget.
That is not the real budget either.
The May Revise is also not the budget, it is just another step in the negotiation process. It gives us a better idea of what the actual numbers are, and the governor will adjust his wish list accordingly, but it is the Legislature that passes the budget, and they have until June 15th to do it.
That is not really the budget either.
While the Legislature will pass a “budget” by June 15th, it also is not really the budget. That is because Proposition 25, entitled the “On-Time Budget Act of 2010,” says legislators forfeit their pay if they do not pass the budget “on time.” The problem with that is, the courts have ruled that it is the Legislature itself that defines what is and is not the budget.
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What we will get then is not a true annual spending plan for the state but a 1,000-page sham, drafted largely in secret and full of blanks to be filled in later through hundreds of “budget trailer bills” after substantial provisions of the budget are negotiated behind closed doors among just three people: The two Democratic legislative leaders and Gov. Newsom.
On Wednesday, 121 of these budget-related bills were introduced in the state Legislature, completely blank except for a line of placeholder text expressing the “intent” to fill them in later. They are numbered SB 100 through SB 220. You can “read” them for yourself at leginfo.legislature.ca.gov.
Eventually, those budget-related bills will spring to life with new language replacing the placeholder text. Then they sail through the process without hearings, or amendments or debate.
A balanced budget in name only.
The state Constitution requires a balanced budget. And it is … if you don’t the count the trillions the state owes to pensioners, financiers, the federal government and others. What the law requires and what the government delivers are two different things.
So much for fiscal responsibility.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.