A Budget for the GOP: How to Erase the Deficit Without Taxes
By Peter Schrag
The most popular game in Sacramento these last ten days has been picking out the flaws and unfairness in Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget. As proposed, it would eliminate roughly half the estimated deficit in spending cuts, half in extending the taxes approved by the legislature in 2009 and expiring this year. Even the assumption that it’s really a 50-50 split has people nit-picking it.
Republicans declared, as expected, that they wouldn’t vote for any tax increase (or extension), or even for anything that would put the governor’s tax extensions on the ballot. Nor will they offer any alternative list of spending cuts. One GOP senator, a committee chairman, simply declared that since the Democrats had a majority, it was the Democrats’ problem.
So how should we cope with the state’s deficit without new taxes? That deficit is now estimated at somewhere between $25 and $28 billion over the next 18 months. And, absent major changes, California will keep running deficits at a rate of roughly $20 billion a year for several years thereafter.
So here are some possibilities:
Eliminate all general fund money for the University of California and you save $2.9 billion.
Cut all state funding for the California State University: $2.6 billion.
Eliminate all general funding for the community colleges: $6.2 billion
Eliminate all financial aid for California students (much of which wouldn’t be necessary anyway if state funding for the rest of public higher education were eliminated): $1.2 billion.
Release 80,000 of the state’s 170,000 prisoners and close a dozen prisons: $4.0 billion
Eliminate all in-home supportive services for people who are aged, blind or disabled: $1.1 billion.
Eliminate all state funding for state parks: $120 million
Eliminate all child care subsidies for poor working parents in welfare-to-work programs: $385 million.
Now throw in the Highway Patrol, the courts and a few other items and you’d be getting close to the $20 billion annual shortfall, though not yet close to ending the current deficit.
You could achieve that most easily by making all the above cuts and then, in addition, shortening the school year by, say, another 60 days (of 175 or 180), which would mean shutting the schools down in March.
That would probably save the state the other $8 billion. It might only have to be a one-year hit, though by the following year many of the best teachers would probably be gone and many of your fourth graders would probably be third graders and have to spend an extra semester in school anyway. Or it could be stretched, say by cutting the school year by 20 days over three years.
There are, of course, countless other items in the budget, but since cutting some programs (such as Medi-Cal) also entails the loss of federal funds, the cuts may not save as much as the numbers might suggest. In addition, some programs, possibly including schooling, are constitutionally protected, which could subject major reductions to legal challenges.
Some people have suggested that, to make their point, the governor and the Democratic majorities in the legislature threaten to close universities in Republican districts, some of which, like Merced and Riverside, are the system’s most marginal campuses anyway.
They could do the same with prisons, which dot the predominantly Republican Central Valley from one end to the other, and which have no reason for being there except that real estate is relatively cheap and some towns in the region are under the illusion that the slammers boost the local economy.
Of course, none of the moves listed above address the state’s unfunded pension liabilities or (less often mentioned) the billions in unfunded health care obligations that some school districts and other local governments have committed to their retirees. Each year, those obligations gobble up an increasing share of the budgets of the districts that agreed to them.
Most of the complaints about Brown’s proposed spending cuts are justified. The health and welfare cuts are cruel and shortsighted since they’ll probably drive up costs in other programs: use of emergency rooms and other hospital services, among others. Similarly, the cuts to the four-year universities can only make it harder to develop the educated, high-skill workforce of the future and attract the innovative entrepreneurs on which the state’s economy has so much depended since World War II. But what choice is there?
Maybe still more discouraging is the fact that, as Mark Paul and Joe Mathews, the authors of the book “California Crackup”, have pointed out, the budget deficit is just a symptom of California’s dysfunctional, convoluted fiscal system; it’s hardly the whole of the California problem.
Unless we untangle the state-local knot of authority that confounds accountability, end the ballot-box budgeting that invites billions in spending without the revenues to pay for it, and reform an initiative process that’s paralyzed ordinary government, state and local, we’ll keep spinning our wheels.
Jerry Brown’s proposals the other day to shift some state services back to the locals, along with a pledge to provide the funding to pay for them, is barely a start. But until someone in Sacramento comes up with an alternative it’s still the most promising thing we’ve got. So far we have a lot of snipers but no one with a better idea. A $28 billion deficit in a state with a $1.9 trillion economy, the eighth largest in the world, is hardly insurmountable. The only thing that makes it tough is us.
Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in
the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and
columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost:
California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High
Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale.