Don't let that money burn a hole in your pocket, Darrell, John and the rest of you Democrats.
California politicians are feeling flush, thanks to voters who approved $7 billion a year in new taxes on Nov. 6 and gave Democrats supermajorities in the Legislature. That heady feeling is perfectly understandable after a decade of budget crises and gridlock.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Speaker John A. Pérez see big needs. Steinberg has spent his time as Senate leader presiding over cuts to programs he values, not the least of which is mental health care. Pérez has had legacy visions of offering what he calls "middle-class scholarships" to eligible college students. They know what once was, and hope to make it reappear.
The list is long. Adult day care for elderly people was eliminated, as were many health care services once funded through Medi-Cal, ranging from dental care for poor adults to acupuncture. Why not restore it all? While they're at it, maybe they could give raises to doctors who care for poor people, and boost rates paid to nursing homes.
Not long ago, legislators would give schools sufficient money to hold class sizes at 20 students. It'd be great to return to that level. It also would be grand to roll back tuition, which doubled at California State University campuses during the past five years, and nearly doubled at University of California. Don't forget state workers. They could use a little more money.
Steinberg told The Bee's editorial board this week that he plans to take a balanced approach of restoring cuts, reducing debt and saving for a rainy day. He agreed Democrats shouldn't have inflated expectations, but also said there was a danger of being so cautious "we don't take advantage of a unique opportunity."
California Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor issued a forecast showing that the state faces a "dramatically smaller budget deficit" in the coming year, a $1.9 billion hole. That's budget dust, compared to deficits in other years. Assuming the economy improves, there could be multibillion-dollar operating surpluses in coming years.
However, Taylor tempered his prediction by saying legislators must hold the line on spending and not restore automatic cost of living increases that were eliminated in 2009 for various programs.
Democrats should use their supermajority to bring about bold and much needed change that Republicans could have blocked in past years. They ought to undertake the important process of overhauling the deeply flawed initiative process.
They could try tackling the inequitable taxation system by flattening some rates and eliminating some loopholes, particularly in the sales tax system. They might consider asking voters to revise aspects of the constitution, perhaps seeking approval to eliminate offices, like, say, the lieutenant governor, or make some elected positions appointed posts, such as secretary of state.
They should not, as a Senate Democrat recently said, use their supermajority to raise the car tax. Arnold Schwarzenegger never should have rolled back the car tax when he took office eight years ago. But a sure-fire way to alienate voters would be to demand more taxes after they approved Proposition 30.
There are plenty of reasonable ways to spend money that, over time, will flow to Sacramento. Legislators should start by paying off loans taken in the lean years, and by paying down the unfunded pension liability, which totals more than $150 billion, according to the LAO. They also should build a reserve so California can weather the next recession.
Over the years, The Bee's editorial board decried short-sighted budget cuts and tuition hikes. There will, in time, be room to restore some reductions. But voters did not give carte blanche to Democrats when they voted in two-thirds supermajorities. If Democrats let the money burn holes in their pockets, they will get slapped down by voters, deservedly so.