No happy days ahead in state budget

Gov. Jerry Brown unveils the 2015-16 state budget at the Capitol in Sacramento on Friday.
Gov. Jerry Brown unveils the 2015-16 state budget at the Capitol in Sacramento on Friday. hamezcua@sacbee.com

The state budget season is back, with Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed $164.7 billion spending plan and a projected surplus. Happy days are here again.

Or not.

Budget experts say that the rebounding economy and a voter-approved temporary tax increase will yield reserves this year of $4 billion or more. But great portions of that extra money will automatically come off the top for mandates, such as those for public schools, and California’s new rainy-day fund.

That’s not the fault of state lawmakers; voter-approved ballot measures have conspired over the years to take much of the decision-making out of state spending. The whims of past electorates have obligated so much of our money that current elected officials really just play at the margins. This is one reason why we’re not fans of budgeting by ballot box.

Flush though we may seem, there will only be about $2 billion or so to cover all sorts of worthy ideas and needs, most of which will have to be put off until next year.

Which ones will wait? That’s the $2 billion or so question.

The governor repeatedly said Friday that fully a third of the state’s spending is earmarked for the poorest among us. When the federal portion is added, he said, $120 billion will be spent on the third of the population at the low end of the economic ladder.

Want to avoid a tuition increase for University of California students? That’ll be $100 million. Want to raise Medi-Cal reimbursements to doctors so they stay in the system to treat all those new Obamacare patients? That’ll be about $300 million.

Want to fully restore the social service safety net for the poor and disabled that became frayed during the recession? Shall the state raise grants to disabled individuals beyond $881 per month or $1,483 for couples? The money must come from some other place.

Or maybe you agree with state Treasurer John Chiang and Brown, who want to pay down unfunded liabilities in the state’s retiree health benefit program. That’s a terrific idea, but it doesn’t leave room for much else.

In short, the governor proposes another “either-or” year. Brown is urging legislators to build the rainy-day fund to $2.8 billion in anticipation of the next recession, and spend another $1.2 billion to pay down debt. Though the state budget process has become much more civil in recent years, and the one-party dominance in the Legislature promises a continued kumbaya ethos, choices will be limited. Neither voters nor lawmakers can be happy with that.

The situation does, however, create an opportunity for reflection. Are we satisfied, for instance, with the support we are giving now to our courts, universities and roads?

If we think some areas are struggling with the pruned-back budgets we forced them to settle for during the recession, then how wedded are we to, say, ending the temporary tax increase that funded much of the recent increases in spending on schools and other programs? How much longer do we want to wait before we start reinvesting? And where do we want to ante up?

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