Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | August 5, 2008

Diagnosing the state’s chronic budget woes

Once again, the California legislature has missed its statutory deadline for passing a budget. California’s fiscal year started on July 1; legislators were supposed to pass a budget by June 15.

No one’s surprised by their failure: Legislators miss their deadline more often than they meet it. The AP reports that it’s happened 23 of the last 32 years. That’s a tardy rate of 71 percent.

Missing deadlines that frequently would get most of us fired, but for some reason, we voters – who do the hiring and firing of state legislators – keep rehiring these folks who regularly fail to meet the most basic of  their job duties: managing the state’s funds.

Of course, getting a budget in place on time is only one part of managing the state’s funds. State legislators regularly fail at another part of this important duty: Spending within their means.

This year, they’re trying to close a $15.2 billion budget gap. California’s general fund is $101 billion. It’s another in a long line of budget crunches.

One reason it’s so hard to pass a budget is that the California legislature requires that two-thirds of each body approve budgets. Majority rule is a pillar of democracy. The legislature’s undemocratic rule means that a minority of legislators can hold the budget process hostage, allowing the minority to control the budget.

It’s time to change this rule in the California legislature – just like it’s time to change the rules that require two-thirds or 55 percent of voters to approve of non-general fund taxes.

This is a democracy – Fifty percent plus one vote should pass any bill, budget or tax, whether it’s presented at the statehouse or the ballot box.

This budget crisis is unlike others in one respect: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last week issued an executive order laying off 10,000 contract and part-time state workers.

The order also cut state workers’ wages to the federal minimum wage of $6.65 per hour – although State Controller John Chiang says he won’t comply with that part of the order.

Labor unions that represent state workers are filing suit to try to reverse Schwarzenegger’s order.

In addition, Frank Kelso, who oversees the state’s prison health system, said that he was exempting 60,000 of the prison system’s 66,000 workers from the order.

Most of the state’s 7,000 fire workers are expected to be exempt from the order.

State Superintendent of Schools Jack O’Connell said he would not comply with layoffs or pay cuts for any of his department’s 2,500 employees.

In what has to be one of the dumbest quotes of the year, O’Connell said, “All CDE employees are valued and important assets of this organization, and we all deserve to continue to work and be paid.”

Ask anyone who has ever been laid off or forced to take a pay cut in a struggling private sector industry and they’ll tell you that they deserved to continue to work and deserved to continue to be paid their full salary.

But when the money’s not there, something’s got to give.

Of course, anyone who was laid off “can apply for unemployment benefits through the state’s Economic Development Department,” the Capitol Weekly reported. “Weekly benefits range from $50 to $450.”

So at this rate, between paying to fight lawsuits, paying unemployment benefits and paying full salaries to vast numbers of state workers, it looks like the fiscal impact of Schwarzenegger’s move might be minimal.

The PR impact – in true Governator style – is enormous.

Here’s what I’d like to see, in addition to reforming the super-majority rules for budget and non-general fund tax passage: A law that says state legislators forfeit their pay, perks and benefits whenever a budget is late. There’s an initiative I could get behind. Anyone ready to put together  a petition?

Meanwhile, do you think that you can do better than the supposed pros in Sacramento? Why not give balancing the state’s budget a try? Next 10, a nonpartisan group focused on California policy issues, has a web-based game called California Budget Challenge that allows players to make policy choices and see how they translate to fiscal realities as they try to balance the state’s budget.

And this November, when you get ready to cast your ballot for state Assembly or state Senate candidates, ask incumbents hard questions about their role in the chronic state budget impasses, and ask all candidates for detailed plans on how they’ll fix it.



  1. […] Dispatch editorial board meeting, the former Gilroy city administrator looked up from reading my column about the chronic state budget woes and asked me if I got tired of writing about a problem that […]

  2. […] long complained that California’s super-majority requirements for passing budgets, passing tax measures, or even […]


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