Friday, October 7, 2011

Why Do Californians Hate Their Government?

Readers of this blog who live outside California might be tempted to wonder: how can a state with a huge economy and tax base have a government that's spending itself into oblivion while making almost none of its citizens happy? It's a fair question. It'd make sense, after all, if they'd gotten themselves in financial trouble by showering too much money on schools and welfare benefits. Yet Jerry Brown and the Legislature have done nothing this year except cut spending on those programs, and the public generally despises them for it. So where is all the money going?

Well, part of the problem is that a lot of the money is going to things that people hate. Like the High Speed Rail Project. In spite of California's ongoing financial weakness, and in spite of recent poll results finding that almost two-thirds of respondents would cut funding for the Project, Katy Grimes reports that Brown's Department of Finance is trying to use last year's budget authority to appropriate millions more for it. It's not at all clear that issuing debt in the current fiscal year without approval from the Legislature is legal. Moreover, the request for more funds makes little sense, insofar as the rail authority's business plan has been delayed, and may not actually exist.

Another part of the problem is that Californians don't enjoy being lied to. It's abundantly clear to even casual observers that the state's annual budget negotiations are a shell game, and that none of the numbers can be trusted. As an example, Dan Walters provides an excellent look at the shaky math underlying Jerry Brown's county realignment plan. When his original plan to pay for the realignment using tax hikes fell apart in the spring, Brown decided to shift some $6.3 billion in mental health dollars and sales and car taxes to pay for it. Yet this shift reduced school funding by over $2 billion. Enter the shell game: Brown then "balanced" the budget by assuming that voters would effectively close this gap by approving new taxes in 2012, and by assuming $4 billion in magical new tax revenue. With the extra money not showing up and voters showing no sign of receptiveness to tax hikes, it's little wonder that many cities and counties are complaining that the realignment is shortchanging them. But surely the Governor has a plan, right? Well . . . "That's why I haven't outlined a full plan. . . I'm going to fix it. It's going to take me a couple years. And I'm going to present it to the people, and I pray that I have the eloquence and the clarity to put it before the people so they can make a judgment. If everything turns out, 'No, no, no,' then we'll regroup, we'll have a press conference . . . and I'll tell you the austere path that we will follow thereafter."


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