Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | January 18, 2011

Unpopular budget is unpleasant but necessary medicine

Regardless of political persuasion, almost no one likes Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal. Given that legislators and our former governor were addicted to accounting tricks, unrealistically rosy forecasts, and one-time gimmicks to “balance” the state budget, that shouldn’t be a surprise.

Those regrettable strategies might have limited political damage by reducing the compromises and difficult decisions that Republicans and Democrats had to make, but they weren’t free: Those shenanigans exacerbated California’s budget problems. Brown won’t have it any more. I applaud Brown’s political courage, even though his budget contains proposals that I don’t like one whit.

Here’s an example: I’m a passionate library supporter. I’m a co-founder and vice-president of the Morgan Hill Library Foundation, which raises funds for the long-term needs of the Morgan Hill Library. (MHLF holds Silicon Valley Puzzle Fest each year, and, pardon the shameless plug, this year’s weekend of sudoku and crossword puzzle workshops and tournaments, featuring world-class experts and puzzles, is set for Jan. 29 and 30 at the Morgan Hill Library; see www.svpuzzle.org for more information). I’m a past president of and current volunteer for the Friends of the Morgan Hill Library, which raises funds for the immediate needs of the library. I’ve written columns extolling the virtues of libraries. I believe that libraries are the best bargain in government.

The Library Journal reports that Brown’s budget proposes eliminating — not reducing, eliminating — all state library funding. The Santa Clara County Library system, which operates public libraries in Morgan Hill, Gilroy and five other cities, would lose approximately $1 million per year. The cuts would devastate the program that enables resource sharing among the state’s libraries, a heavily used and essential library service.

These proposed cuts pain me. Likewise, I sympathize with advocates for other groups who are sharing compelling stories forecasting the pain that this budget proposal will bring their constituencies.

I have less sympathy for reactions like the one I read in the Around the Water Cooler feature in the Morgan Hill Times. Jeff Nunes — responding to the question “Do you support Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal?” — criticized Brown for “placing the fate of schools on the backs of taxpayers at the ballot box…” I hate to break it to Nunes, but the fate of public schools, like the fate of public libraries, and the fate of every other public service is, always has been, and always will be squarely on the backs of taxpayers.

The money that government spends doesn’t grow on trees: The vast majority comes, in one way or another, from taxpayers. If taxpayers want a service, taxpayers must pay for that service. Whether its roads, airports, military, schools, prisons, courts, libraries, sewers, parks, street lights, help for the homeless, the disabled, the mentally ill, substance abusers — you name it — taxpayers foot the bill.

Republican legislators do their best to block every tax increase that comes before them in the statehouse, so Brown promised during his campaign to put all tax measures to a vote of the people. I don’t love the idea — I think it relieves well-paid legislators of one of their essential duties — but Brown is at least keeping his campaign promise with his budget proposal.

Moreover, I’d like to see a plan for bringing public employee compensation — and that includes benefits — in line. It’s not fair, for example, to demand that taxpayers to pay public servants fat pensions that are nearly extinct in the private sector. Salaries are frequently excessive. Despite the terrible economy, Gilroyans gave their city clerk a generous raise in September 2009, boosting her annual salary to nearly $100,000 annually; the clerk who retired a few years ago earned $122,856 annually. That’s just salary, remember; the city’s generous benefits and pension package is on top of that. California’s prison guards are the best paid in the nation. Other examples abound.

But I recognize that union contracts can’t be fixed overnight; they require negotiation and time. We need a tricks-free budget in the short term and we must do the long-term work of re-aligning public employee compensation.

Brown’s budget proposal must make its way through a statehouse filled with people on both sides of the aisle who passionately oppose parts of it. What comes out of that process is likely to look very different, and Brown will have decide if he will sign it. Whatever emerges, love it or loathe it, I hope that it’s at least an honest, responsible, gimmick-free budget.

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