In California, New Governor Faces Budget Woes

California Gov. Jerry Brown will unveil a new state budget Monday, designed to erase a deficit that could be as high as $28 billion dollars, but the new governor won’t have much time to fix the state’s budget.

Brown’s inaugural speech last week began with a reminder of three big promises he made during his campaign for governor.

“No more smoke and mirrors on the budget. No empty promises. Second: No new taxes unless the people vote for them. And third: Return as much as possible -– decisions and authority – to cities, counties and schools.”

Brown has a chance to make good on those promises with the budget he proposes to the state Legislature.

More Bad News

The early buzz, not surprisingly, is nothing but bad news. Brown will reportedly call for deep cuts in a number of areas -— from social services to higher education and beyond.

He’s also poised to launch an ambitious, and complex, effort to transfer power to local governments over services they provide, but ones the state controls and pays for.

Brown says he’s under no illusions about the battles that kind of change may spark.

“Government, state and local, is wired together in a particular way,” he said. “And as we rewire it, there will be people who object because power gets shifted, funds move from one direction rather than another.”

Looming Battles

But by the time January is over, Brown may have face even bigger battles.  Reports are that his budget will propose that the state’s most popular program -— K-thru-12 schools -— be spared any more cuts, but only if voters approve extending some taxes set to expire this summer.

Those income, sales and car taxes are worth about $8 billion. Education advocates are already preparing a statewide campaign.

“We look forward to being part of a coalition that takes the message to voters that we need great schools in California,” said Bob Wells, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators. “And you do have to pay for it.”

But the voters can’t consider the issue if the state Legislature doesn’t place the question on the ballot. And that means a handful of Republican legislators have to go along with Brown.

So far, they seem dead set against it.

Connie Conway, the Republican leader of the California state Assembly, says voters rejected those same taxes two years ago.

“I think they have spoken loud and clear,” Conway said. “Quit trying to tax me more. I’ve told you once, I’ve told you twice: Are you really going to make me tell you that a third time?”

Old Problems

Nothing about either the choices, or the problems, facing California seems new. While most states across the nation face budget gaps, their dilemmas can be largely traced to the recession. But even when California’s economy was strong, and unemployment was low, the state was running in the red. To make matters even worse, just one month after last October’s latest budget ever came news the state’s deficit was already back.

Mac Taylor, who leads the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office that advises the state Legislature on the budget, says many of California’s recent budgets have been balanced with temporary, stopgap measures.  Now, the state’s lawmakers have little choice but to face the problem head on.

“They should look at all programs. You can’t solve this budget problem by just being a little more efficient,” Taylor said. “You’re going to have to make decisions that there are certain services we can no longer afford, at this time or in the near future.”

The calendar is tight for Brown. If voters are going to consider budget proposals before the start of the new fiscal year, the next two months are crucial. That leaves little room for error.

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