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Our View: State budget an elaborate shell game

Posted: March 30, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: March 30, 2012 1:55 a.m.

It’s no secret that Sacramento is in dire financial shape, and it’s been trying various and far-reaching methods to cut a state deficit that still stands at roughly $9 billion.

While billions have already been trimmed and saved in the last year through necessary reductions in overhead expenses, a few rare instances of smart money management, there are too many examples of unfunded mandates and cost-savings measures that range from controversial to downright dangerous.

Take, for example, the recent move to put the job of caring for children with mental-health issues on schools to ease the burden on county agencies. It’s a great move — if you’re basing an opinion solely on county financial documents.

However, it’s a risky move that seems to have more downside than up, and a lot of unanswered questions about who will be funding mental-health programs beyond the short term.

Schools are not centers for counseling and therapy or treatment of mental illnesses; that’s the job of the Child & Family Center. It’s unfair to force schools to assume this responsibility.

It puts too much pressure and liability on school districts to be everything to everyone without the funding to do it.

Mental health and special education for the William S. Hart Union High School District already cost a little more than $2 million annually, and the move to put the additional services in the hands of the schools will increase that cost by about $800,000. Because that number won’t be matched by state funding, that puts an extra burden on the already-ailing general fund.

This move is similar to the state-prison realignment, through which state prisoners are sent to county jails or are released early — leading to an increasing recidivism rate — as a means to save money and accommodate a federal ruling to reduce the overcrowded state prison system.

It satisfied almost no one except for prisoners who were released early.

These are just a part of a growing list of unfunded mandates to make their way through the works in Sacramento and land on the heads of schools and local governments.

Other examples include the No Child Left Behind mandate for remediation plans to bring up test scores to meet proficiency standards, deferrals of payments to school districts and special-education transportation costs. All these programs  — and many more — are required but aren’t given adequate funding to make it happen.

And, to add insult to injury, state education funding has been diminishing every year, leaving school districts to do more and more with less and less.

The local shining example of an astronomically expensive unfunded mandate is the Clean Water Act, which is the reason why the Santa Clarita Valley is potentially on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars of chloride removal for downstream agriculture.

The state needs to put an end to the budgetary shell game. If our legislators want to set a mandate for education, law enforcement, public safety, etc., that’s fine, but they need to come up with a revenue source to accompany it. We can’t just keep kicking the can down the road, hoping that someone will eventually figure out how to pick it up.

If the average citizen has to either budget carefully or pick up a second job to afford a fancy new car or a bigger house, the state needs to play by the same rules and not assume that someone else will make the payments.

It’s now time for Sacramento to grow up and face reality, and stop passing the buck at the expense of schools and local governments. The future of our state relies on it.


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