Editorial: Governor needs to be porch dog on the budget

Published: Sunday, Jun. 2, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6E

The governor portrayed himself as a skinflint and wisely promised prudence after California taxpayers flooded state coffers with billions of dollars in unexpected revenue.

"I intend to resist the siren song of permanent expenditures, whether it comes from the left or the right," the governor said, seemingly striving to be the adult in the room.

Then the demands came. From the left, there were pleas to spend more on social programs. The powerful public school lobby demanded more money for schools. The right wanted baubles, too, including tax cuts. The governor's resolve weakened.

That was 13 years ago, and the governor was Gray Davis. This governor, Jerry Brown, appears to be dead set against spending every nickel and dime that arrives, or so Californians should hope.

"Anybody who thinks there's spare change around here has not read the budget," Brown said two weeks ago.

Brown should stick to that view, as budget negotiations enter their final weeks before the Legislature's mid-June deadline for approving the budget and Brown's July 1 deadline for having the spending plan in place.

For too long, California's budget was a study in the ridiculous. Revenue would flood into coffers in one year, only to fall painfully short in the following years, as Davis discovered two years after the $12 billion so-called surplus when he faced a $12 billion shortfall.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who claimed he would solve the mess, made matters worse by relying on debt to help finance a $4 billion-a-year car tax cut, a reckless move for which taxpayers still are on the hook.

In the coming days and weeks, pressure will be intense on Brown and legislators. On Tuesday, a protest billed as "the largest ever health rally" is scheduled to take place at the Capitol, as Medi-Cal providers insist on higher payments for treating poor people. Their arguments will be powerful.

Some programs ought to get more than they currently receive. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg wants an additional $200 million-plus for mental health care and $113 million to provide dental care for poor people. They are worthy proposals.

Speaker John A. Pérez offers a well-intentioned but muddled idea – again seeking $173 million for what he calls "middle-class scholarships" to help defray the cost of higher education for a select swath of students. He ought to impose on public universities to reduce costs and tuition, which would benefit all students.

But California will end up back in the morass from which it's only now emerging if it spends $200 million plus $113 million plus $173 million plus millions more for all the other good programs.

The Legislative Analyst's Office has said tax revenue will be $3.2 billion above Brown's estimate. Perhaps Brown lowballed the revenue estimate for 2013.

But the European economy remains in the doldrums; the always tense Middle East could worsen; Congress is dysfunctional, and employers hesitate to invest in new hiring.

Given all that, only a fool would gainsay Brown. Sacramento does have its share of people who act foolishly around the people's money. If Brown's revenue estimate turns out to be low, there are plenty of past-due bills awaiting payment, not the least of which is the fiscal time bomb that is the underfunded public schoolteachers' pension system.

There will be give and take, as Brown and legislators haggle over the budget. That's the way of politics. But legislators need to show restraint.

Brown should keep his blue pencil close by.

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