Gov. Jerry Brown says the state's budget deficit has risen to $15.7 billion. Last month, he called on legislators to "man up" and make significant cuts, while continuing to make his case for a tax-increase initiative on November's ballot.
What should the Legislature cut, and what should it try to keep?
Ben Boychuk: Focus on education
Our legislators aren't the only ones in the Capitol who need to "man up" about budget cuts.
When the governor first unveiled his 2012-13 spending plan in January, he called it "an honest budget" before quickly adding, "but it's not a fortune-telling budget. We don't have clairvoyance at the Department of Finance."
One needn't possess powers of remote viewing to see clearly that Jerry Brown's budget remains a mess of overly optimistic assumptions with the biggest assumption of all being voters' approval of Brown's "millionaire's tax" in November.
Now, if I thought I could successfully bridge a nearly $16 billion budget gap in 430 words or so, I would run for office, stage a coup or mount a secession campaign. Odds are, I will not meet the governor's standard of manliness. But here's a start.
Begin with the base line. Brown's proposed budget would spend $5 billion more than last year, ostensibly for schools. Under the circumstances, any spending plan should begin with last year's numbers, and work back from there.
Focusing on K-12 funding would almost certainly require suspending Proposition 98, which the Legislature may do with a two-thirds vote.
Lawmakers attempted a bit of sleight of hand last year by denying schools (at least, according to the Prop. 98 formula) some $1 billion.
Brown vetoed that effort. They should find the nerve, suspend the law, and make the essential cuts.
Education, after all, is where the money is.
The blowback from the teachers union and other special interests tied to the education establishment would be brutal. But crisis begets opportunity, and opportunity fosters creativity.
Here's an idea: Stop funding schools and start funding students. Replace the current Byzantine finance structure with a universal voucher system.
That isn't the sort of reform California could undertake tomorrow. And the argument is more complicated than space permits the California Teachers Association wrote the book on how to demagogue the issue, and it's a long one.
The bottom line is we have 20 years' worth of data on the effectiveness of vouchers. A dozen states last year either adopted or expanded existing voucher programs. Vouchers save taxpayer money, and help boost student achievement. (Ask Sen. Dianne Feinstein. She was a co-sponsor of legislation to save the Washington, D.C., voucher program last year.)
Simply maintaining last year's level of spending on education wouldn't close the deficit, but it gets us a few billion closer. And as Brown likes to say, the day of reckoning is upon us. For the long term, radically restructuring school finances is a crucial part of restoring sanity to California's budget.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. (www.city-journal.org/california)
Pia Lopez: Balance cuts, taxes
Ben is in fantasyland if he believes his solution will close a $15.7 billion budget shortfall for 2012-13, much less the ongoing structural gap between revenue and spending. He basically has thrown up his hands and said, "education vouchers."
The reality is that California today is spending a much lower share of its economy on state government than in the past. In 1980, $7.43 per $100 of personal income went toward general fund spending. This year, it is $5.27. This shows in higher tuition and fewer course sections at the state's public colleges and universities; poorly maintained state parks; less help for the aged and disabled. You name it.
Consider Ben's starting point, education. Per pupil funding today ($7,583) is much lower than five years ago ($8,235), placing us 47th among the states. This shows in fewer teachers, larger class sizes, fewer days in school and losses of arts, music, libraries, counselors and bus transportation.
Despite Ben's description, under the governor's 2012-13 budget proposal, per-pupil funding would drop further even if voters approve his proposal to increase tax revenue in November. The increase in overall K-12 spending comes from enrollment growth and paying down deferrals it includes no cost-of-living adjustment.
If the governor's tax measure fails, per-pupil funding would drop to $7,128. Ben, how much lower would you go?
California has been making cuts and will have to make more. They will be ugly.
Take health care, the second-largest piece of the budget pie. The governor proposes major cuts from nursing homes to community clinics, from children's health insurance coverage to services that keep the elderly in their homes. And social services: Three-quarters of needy families in CalWORKs would face reduced cash assistance or have their cases discontinued.
To his great credit, Gov. Jerry Brown already has won significant savings with the end of redevelopment agencies. He also pursued "realignment," where certain lower-level offenders are sentenced to counties instead of to expensive state prisons bringing major savings in prison costs.
The number of state employees will drop to 341,783 in 2012-13, placing California near the bottom of the states at nine per 1,000 population. Brown also is proposing to cut the workweek to four 7 a.m.-to-7 p.m. days, a 5 percent pay cut.
Restoring a balanced state budget will require deep cuts on the scale Brown has proposed. But it also will require new tax revenue. California has among the world's largest economies. Surely, we can afford balanced budgets and quality services.
Pia Lopez is an editorial writer at The Bee.