Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | August 4, 2009

Fixing California’s budget mess is up to us

California has adopted another smoke-and-mirrors spending plan that allegedly balances the budget. But it requires borrowing — with interest — $2 billion from local agencies. This hardly addresses California’s structural budget problems. Here’s my three-part prescription for easing California’s chronic budget woes:

1. Drop the two-thirds majority rule to pass budgets and raise taxes.

Let’s allow our democratically elected legislators to do their jobs via simple majority votes and then reap the reward or pay the price at the next election.

Two-thirds majority rules encourage games of budget chicken and obfuscate responsibility for the budget mess. Let’s restore representative democracy, accountability and clarity by revoking super-majority rules.

2. End or amend ballot-box budgeting.

Ballot-box budgeting is the practice whereby voters, through the initiative process, decide how to spend the state’s money one pet project at a time.

Properly done, budgeting takes a look at all needs and priorities and sets spending plans with a holistic view. “Schools good, criminals bad” is not a sophisticated enough method for creating California’s budget.

Ballot-box budgeting is largely responsible for the fact that the legislature controls roughly 15 percent of the state’s budget. That inflexibility doesn’t give the legislature any room to manuever when fiscal crises like the one we’re currently experiencing strike.

If we can’t end ballot-box budgeting, Assemblyman Bill Monning’s alternative is a good start: Require that any proposition or initiative that would increase spending include a funding mechanism.

Your proposition requires tough new sentencing rules? Great, ask the legislative analyst’s office how much it will cost and include enough spending cuts or tax increases or both to cover that amount in your proposition. Otherwise, it doesn’t go on the ballot.

History shows that voters approve “feel-good” items — schools, law-and-order — without any regard for how the state will pay for them.

If we can’t end ballot-box budgeting, it must at least become realistic.

3. Control labor costs.

Government workers ought to be paid fair wages and benefits commensurate with those for similar jobs requiring similar qualifications in the private sector. Most private-sector jobs have less job security, lower wages, less generous health-care benefits and no pensions.

Need an example? California has the best-paid prison guards in the nation. The Sacramento Bee reported that “California correctional officers beat the median survey population by about 29 percent and the next highest — Pennsylvania — by about 24 percent.”

And that’s only a comparison with other public-sector workers. I’ll bet that a comparison with private-sector jobs requiring similar qualifications and imposing similar responsibilities would be even more stark.

Remember the city hall salary brouhaha in Gilroy? The city’s incestuous policy of requiring that its employees earn “10 percent more than their peers in nearby cities” resulted in a city clerk retiring with a salary of more than $122,000 a year, and her replacement earning more than $92,000 per year. And that’s before generous benefits.

Private-sector workers pay the taxes that give most government workers far better compensation packages than they earn for similar work. Until the general public gets mad as hell about it and refuses to take it any more, it won’t change.

Ultimately, this is a democracy and we get the government we deserve. We must demand changes — loudly, consistently, insistently — or we’ll be stuck with the mess we’ve created.

It’s up to us.


I’m bidding a fond farewell to fellow Dispatch columnist Cynthia Walker, who is ending her column and her service on the newspaper’s editorial board as she moves to Livermore.

The “fond” in that sentence might surprise many readers who know that Cynthia and I disagreed often on a wide range of issues. After all, we occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum.

But Cynthia and I found — especially after she joined the editorial board a few years ago — that we agreed quite often also. For example, I couldn’t agree more with this statement from her final Dispatch column:

This is the proper function of the local press: to be that damned reporter, to observe, to report, to criticize, to publish, to blare, to expose every governmental folly and indiscretion to the harsh glare of public scrutiny. There can be no democracy when the public has no knowledge of how the public sector is conducting its business.

I hereby bestow upon that paragraph my highest honor: I wish I had written that.

Best wishes in your new home and hometown, Cynthia.



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

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