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Bill Kennedy: Denial led to state budget crunch

Right Here, Right Now!

Posted: February 26, 2009 11:08 p.m.
Updated: February 27, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Bill Kennedy Bill Kennedy
Bill Kennedy

It was January 1966 and 2nd Lt. Larry Arnold, one of my USAF pilot training classmates, had just lifted off from our base in Texas for his initial solo in a twin-engine jet, when he was confronted by one of a pilot's worst nightmares - a cockpit warning light indicating a fire in the right engine.

His initial reaction, he half-jokingly recounted later, was denial. Covering the warning light with his right hand to remove the unwelcome indication from his view, he muttered to himself, "This can't be happening to me!"

Shortly thereafter, reason prevailed, and he dutifully attended to the emergency, lowering the nose of the aircraft to maintain a safe single-engine speed, pulling the "T" handle that activated the fire extinguishers for the right engine pod and executing a successful single-engine landing, much to the acclaim of his instructors and fellow students.

Making hard choices in an emergency is never easy, but it is essential. Denial can be a normal initial reaction to an undesirable situation, but it will never solve a difficult problem. Recovery comes only after one eventually accepts the circumstances and executes a successful plan to deal with it.

It is too bad our Legislature in Sacramento does not understand that concept. There is a long list of problems the Legislature has not addressed, most notable of which is their inability to produce a reasonable, balanced budget on time.

For most of this decade, the Legislature has set progressively longer records for budgetary gridlock, to the point that a budget approval that is only months behind is now accepted as the norm. Such delays are troublesome because they put the state into a crisis mode due to lack of operating capital, causing untold anguish for many workers and state-funded programs and forcing desperate actions that would never be acceptable under normal circumstances.

Too often, our harried, dysfunctional legislators rely on artificial fixes to solve budget deficits. These unrealistic solutions have included the use of general-obligation bonds, robbing special use funds to make ends meet, increasing taxes and fees, and even proposing raiding the tenuous future earnings of the state lottery to fund current obligations. Such a facile approach requires the taxpayers of California to fund ever-increasing bills and fails to deal with the real problem.

Like the proverbial hand over the flashing engine -sk the real emergency - the structural deficiencies of the current budget system, which are many. For example, in concert with their reliance on easy solutions, California's lawmakers have allowed the state budget to grow at a disproportionate rate when compared to population and inflation. Part of the problem is that the majority of spending in the budget is set on autopilot. Currently about 90 percent of the budget is tied up with contracts and statutory requirements, many of which include generous pension plans which were foisted on the state by unions but cannot be reasonably sustained.

Another systemic problem with the state's budget is the propensity of the legislature to spend all the money it takes in during years of high revenue growth. Their failure to set aside funds for the lean years leads to unsustainable spending levels in the long run.

This "feast-or-famine" cycle and automatic spending threatens the state's long-term fiscal stability and leaves the most vulnerable residents victim to erratic, unpredictable assistance. Californians deserve better. Since the system itself is the problem, the system must be changed.

Interview any given legislator about our dysfunctional state government, and chances are you will get a litany of reasons why it is the others who are causing the problem. Such a disingenuous denial is akin to the old adage, "Every snowflake in an earthquake pleads ‘not guilty.'"

Why is our legislature so dysfunctional on fiscal matters? One of the problems in Sacramento is that the legislature is too polarized.
When legislators are assembled for a budget vote, they seem to lose all rationality, clinging to party political lines and bringing the government to a standstill. The steadfast stubbornness that ensues results in uncooperative behavior that would be unacceptable in a kindergarten playground, but has become common in Sacramento.

The people of California deserve better. It is time for real budget reform in order to end the "band-aid and baling wire" solutions of the past.

A few years ago, then Assemblyman Dr. Keith Richman, 38th District, accurately predicted the coming of the budgetary morass in which we find ourselves today. He suggested, among other solutions, that open primaries would likely produce more centrist candidates who would better reflect the interests of the majority of Californians and be more inclined to cooperate with one another for the common good.

Voters may get their chance to vote in favor of such an initiative in the next election. Given the fiscal emergency we have, that may be just the action we need to recover, and get the state flying high again - right here, right now!

Bill Kennedy lives in Valencia and is a principal in Wingspan Business Consulting. He serves the community as chairman of the Planning Commission, chairman of the SCV Chamber of Commerce, and member of the following boards: Valley Industrial Association, College of the Canyons Foundation and Habitat for Humanity SF/SCV. "Right Here, Right Now" appears Fridays in The Signal and rotates among local Republican writers. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of these organizations or those of The Signal.


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