Bill Whalen

We need better options for using California’s windfall

Gov. Jerry Brown releases his revised 2015-16 budget plan in May. A $7.9 billion surplus is projected in that budget, and Bill Whalen says we need creative ways to decide what to do with the money.
Gov. Jerry Brown releases his revised 2015-16 budget plan in May. A $7.9 billion surplus is projected in that budget, and Bill Whalen says we need creative ways to decide what to do with the money. Sacramento Bee file

If you’re out shopping on Black Friday and reading this while standing in a long checkout line, the state of California thanks you. Your purchases and sales taxes are partially responsible for what could be a banner year for the Golden State’s coffers.

If El Niño shapes up as this winter’s big soak, then spring portends another downpour – a $7.9 billion state budget surplus by June, if the Legislative Analyst’s Office is to be believed and if there are no new spending commitments for the current state fiscal year ending in June.

Unfortunately, here’s where the Black Friday connection ends. The motivation behind today’s mall traipsing is bargain hunting. Six months from now, the goods and services that state government buys won’t come with a discount. Lawmakers will argue need and sensibility – all viewed through competing political prisms of spend more vs. save more.

How will the Legislature deal with this bountiful harvest?

Both parties likely will go along with expanding services for the developmentally disabled and restoring payments to doctors with Medi-Cal caseloads. Chances are that Democrats will take another run at Gov. Jerry Brown over a big-ticket prize such as universal preschool. Meanwhile, Republicans will want to cut taxes.

In a better world, we’d have better options for how to go about what do with a multibillion-dollar surplus. Here are three avenues.

If you want to be cold and calculating about it, simply allocate the windfall based on how California spends its income tax revenue in the current budget. That’s 31 percent for health and human services, 30 percent for K-12 education, 9 percent for higher education, 8 percent for corrections, 7 percent for transportation and 5.5 percent for natural resources and environmental protection.

If you want to avoid ideology and the shoddy practice of financially rewarding those who underwrite political careers, give everyone a rebate. A $7.9 billion surplus divided by 12.5 million California households means a $630 check arriving in the mail next year.

Or we could open up the state’s purse strings to a true public debate.

When he served in the Legislature, Joe Simitian ran an annual “there ought to be a law” contest allowing Californians to submit their best ideas. This is how we ended up with a law requiring drivers to turn on their headlights when they turn on windshield wipers.

Assuming it can handle the task, why not create an “it’s your money” portal at the state Department of Finance website, encouraging Californians to submit ideas for what to do with the surplus?

There’s a fourth possibility: Turn over part of the surplus to nonprofits such as the Save the Redwoods League, which on Friday is sponsoring free admission to 49 California state parks.

It’s the flip side to Black Friday: Californians walking, hiking and biking – as opposed to the less healthy, less inspirational shopping and dropping. There is no better bargain to be had today.

Imagine the benefits of billions of dollars going to help millions of our friends and neighbors find paths to enlightenment. They could take in the state’s natural wonders, have their lives enriched by the fine arts and perhaps find a little serenity in these complicated times.

If Save the Redwoods is willing, there’s something else it can do for California’s benefit. It could put our lawmakers on some buses and drive them to the nearest forest. Give these 120 appropriators a day in the great outdoors to stretch their legs and collect their thoughts before embarking on next year’s spending spree.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at whalenoped@gmail.com.

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