Most state constitutions require an annual balanced budget. In California this has been honored in the breech for some time. In recent years, it has often been September by the time the legislature cobbled one together (despite the fact it was required by June 30). Last year, the voters decreed that the legislators would not be paid after the deadline date if they hadn’t produced said balanced budget. They missed it by about a week. (Fortunately, they don’t get paid retroactively for the lost days.) The bad news was, they achieved the goal that is a budget dependent on 40 percent wishful thinking (that is, $4 billion in new revenue) and 60 percent on accounting sleight-of-hand tricks.
The problem with the former is that wishes aren’t dollars. Already, new funds are coming in at an annual rate about $600 million short of the target. As for the sleight-of-hand accounting, this year as in recent ones it involves shifting funds from one place to another and they must be replenished on a short timetable. In effect, this has resulted in the legislature coming up with two budgets every year: the first (and fake) one, and the second a few months later which should be geared to reality but is actually about as realistic as the old stage trick of sawing a woman in half in a box.
The wishful thinking was for about $4 billion in new revenue from an economic “recovery” about as fanciful as Obama’s of last year. If the revenue shortfall continues a fearsome aspect of this year’s budget will become a reality: mandated budget cuts.
To “sell” the budget, the legislature agreed to certain automatic cuts if, after six months, the budget is not balanced. Without new revenue, the chance of accounting tricks doing the job evaporates. The State Controller’s office will pretty much know in October how the year will turn out.
Before the heavily Democratic legislature completed its current session, its leaders pleaded with Governor Jerry Brown to ease up on the “triggers” for the budget cuts. No dice, he said, adding that to do so would reduce the confidence of investors in California. It was hard enough getting the banks to buy the “revenue anticipation” bonds based on the state’s wishful thinking. No, Jerry Brown hasn’t become a Republican. He can read polls and he knows that Californians are getting fed up with their dysfunctional state government.
What a dilemma. There is nothing a Democrat likes less than to tell constituents whose votes he has bought by passing their pet legislation that they will have to do with less. The howls will be long and loud. Demonstrations will surround the state capitol, keening about the cruelty of the legislators. Some bureaucrats will be terminated. Some lobbyists will remind their Democrat beneficiaries that their largess will be a lot less large next year.
O tempora! O mores! O thank goodness for tough times in Sacramento.