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Don’t ignore budget lesson

Our View: State budget

Posted: February 21, 2009 10:53 p.m.
Updated: February 22, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 
School districts and other local agencies finally know how much money they'll receive from the state - for a fiscal year that began last July.

Whatever your take on the mixture of smoke, mirrors, tax increases and spending cuts Sacramento is using to erase a $42 billion deficit, we can no longer afford to do what we do every year and forget about the whole mess until the next time the politicians fail miserably to do their jobs and pass a budget on time.

"On time." Funny - we've gotten so far away from "on time" that it's difficult to use those words in the same sentence with "state budget." We've lowered our expectations to the point where the question isn't whether the train will arrive on time, but whether it will arrive at all or secret on the way to the station.

By passing a budget eight months late with 12.5 percent fewer dollars in it than our local agencies were expecting, Sacramento is cutting its expenditures to $90.7 billion from an anticipated $103 billion. Now every agency from your child's school district to the DMV has just four months to absorb a $13 billion shock.

Simple math would tell you that to balance a 12.5 percent cut in four months means you would have to cut your budget by roughly 40 percent a month.

Doing that over the next four months would give you an annual cut of 12.5 percent.

"On time" would have given those agencies 12 months to downscale programs and cut staff through attrition.

That's why the required June 15 deadline to pass the following July 1 through June 30 budget is written into the state constitution.

Now our school districts must mail layoff notices and our public services will shut their doors a least a couple of days each month.

The delay is even more dumbfounding when you consider that almost everyone in both houses of the Legislature - including our own Assemblyman Cameron Smyth and Sen. George Runner - has witnessed life from the other side of the fence.

Almost all of them have served on school boards or city councils or other agencies that have been at the mercy of previous state lawmakers who couldn't get the job done "on time."

Almost all have felt the pain and uncertainty first hand. They've had to send layoff notices to valued employees and let potholes go unfilled when they simply didn't know how deeply Sacramento would dig into their own local agencies' budgets.

Hard to believe that so many who go to Sacramento vowing to stop the budget insanity - then become part of it. Maybe the county supervisors had the right idea with their twist on the revolutionaries' Boston Tea Party.

As the central property-tax bill collectors, counties are uniquely positioned to carry out this unique revolt. If the state won't send counties their due, then why should the counties send the state its share of property tax receipts?

That's crisis management. It's a desperate, albeit oddly charming and folksy, reaction to a broken system.

And it just gets worse. The longer the Legislature delays, the less time the state agencies have to analyze their cash flow and make their projections for the following year's budget.

And this time there is no time. Next year's budget is supposed to be well in the works already and sitting on the governor's desk in just four months.

The delays snowball and the next thing you know, we'll go a full year without a budget.

It doesn't need to be like this. There are intelligent people who are calling for specific structural reforms, and we need to jump on their bandwagon. All of us: We the citizens, we the voters and we the local school boards and city councils and boards of supervisors.

We need two-year budget cycles. That's not to let Sacramento off the hook every other year; it's to stall the merry-go-round long enough for the local agencies to catch up before everything comes apart again.

It's time for results-driven appropriations. If the programs aren't achieving the desired results, cut them. Don't keep throwing money at them in hopes they'll work one day. What is the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?

It's time to tie expenditures to revenues. If you're going to launch a new program, identify a funding source for it first. That should be simple enough that even a politician could understand it.

It's time to create a rainy-day fund. Set money aside to avoid reverse sticker shock when the housing market tanks and takes the property tax receipts with it.

And finally, it's time for counties to join the "Tea Party" revolt. Don't wait until we're seven or eight months down the red-brick road. Counties should prepare now to tell the state: "You burden us with unfunded mandates, we'll use your own money to fund them."

Remember the chaos caused by this budget debacle and let it be a lesson to us all. Whether you're a teacher or a taxpayer or both, keep rattling those sabers and force all irresponsible and juvenile behavior in Sacramento to swallow a giant reform pill.

Or throw out every last one of the current legislators and fill their chairs with a new crop who can remember what life was like when they were the ones getting the short end of the stick.

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