HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

Assemblyman Chris Norby, R-Fullerton, studies budget "trailer" bills during the frenetic session Wednesday when the Assembly passed budget details.

Editorial: Focus must shift to tax initiative

Published: Sunday, Jul. 1, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jul. 4, 2012 - 5:19 pm

Now that the state budget is done, Gov. Jerry Brown and other Democratic leaders must confront the hard task of persuading a rightly skeptical electorate to approve the November tax initiative.

They have five months to close the deal, and it won't be easy.

The budget deal approved in various pieces during the past 10 days is part of the sales jobs. So far, so good. At least the state has a budget, as California's new fiscal year begins today. That's progress, of a sort.

The situation is very different from past years when the July 1 deadline for having a budget was a nice concept. Lawmakers ignored it and got into the appalling habit of waiting until the leaves turned color before approving spending plans.

The 2012-13 budget is far from perfect. It might not even be balanced, at least not for long. Optimistically, the state is counting on Facebook millionaires to friend the state with $2.1 billion in tax payments, as The Bee's budget expert, Kevin Yamamura, has reported.

The state also is banking on $1 billion from cap-and-trade auctions, though California's version of the auction is untested.

The state made far too many policy changes with far-reaching implications in budget-related legislation called "trailer" bills.

Legislators could not possibly have read and digested the 23 or so trailer bills, many of which became public only hours before they came up for votes.

Just one of them, one that ran 234 turgid pages, eliminated Healthy Families, a widely lauded program through which hundreds of thousands of children of working people received health care. They will move into the troubled Medi-Cal program.

Trailer bills revamped the Department of Mental Health, stripping it of many of its oversight duties, either eliminating them or shifting them to other state departments, primarily the state health department.

A reconstituted and slimmed-down mental health department will focus solely on operating state psychiatric hospitals. Department of Drug and Alcohol functions also will be folded into the health department.

Several boards and commissions will disappear.

Of course, the budget includes some concessions to organized labor. Gov. Jerry Brown is not Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Democrats control California government, and unions are their patrons.

But critics who contend the state has failed to make significant changes since the 2008 recession are simply wrong. Public employees are accepting painful cuts in pay. At the end of Brown's term in office, there will be tens of thousands fewer state workers.

With a voter-approved initiative authorizing majority-vote budgets, Brown and Democratic legislative leaders negotiated the budget deal without Republicans.

As budget bills were being approved, Republican legislators speechified about Democrats' failure to include money to open new veterans homes in Fresno and Redding, which happen to be in or near Republican districts.

Their complaints are empty. Republicans dealt themselves out of negotiations by refusing to make any concessions on taxes last year or this year, leaving the governor to push for this year's tax initiative.

The final budget assumes that without that tax, schools would lose $2.7 billion and shut three weeks early – an utterly unacceptable reduction. Public university tuition would rise and the state would go farther down the path of privatizing the University of California system, another unacceptable concept.

Brown and his allies will need to make certain that voters have a clear understanding of what lies ahead if they reject the $8.5 billion tax hike, most of which would remain in place for seven years. The stakes are high. Nothing on California's long November ballot will be more consequential for this state than the governor's tax measure.

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