California’s Budget Crisis: Confusing and Tragic

California’s current budget has a big hole in it — roughly the size of $18 billion. Depending on how you count the census, that works out to about $475 per person. Next year it gets worse. The budget for fiscal year 2009-2010 is already estimated to be $22 billion out-of-whack — let’s call it another $600 per person. That ‘s serious money.

Keeping track of what’s going on with the deficit, who is talking with whom and who is doing what can be challenging. There used to be negotiations between the Big Five (Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the leaders of the Democrats and Republicans in both the Assembly and Senate). But when the Governor began pushing for tax increases, the GOP legislative leaders balked and are no longer engaged in much of the discussions (except through press releases). Democrats engineered an end-around the constitutional requirement that two-thirds of each house pass tax increases, but the Governor vetoed their bill — not because of the creative accounting, but because the package was missing items he considers critical.

It’s enough to confuse anyone. Fortunately, two recent columns will help in keeping the players and issues straight. One is by Dan Smith, the Capitol Bureau Chief of the Sacramento Bee. He offers a Q&A that serves as a factual road map to what’s happening in Sacramento.

The second is an analysis by George Skelton of the Los Angeles Times. He works through some of the details behind the ever growing deficits. It becomes clear this is not a challenge the state can simply slash spending to overcome. The Republican’s aversion to raising taxes is principled, but there comes a time — and emergency — that justifies an exception. It’s hard to see how this is not one of those times.

There are other takes on California’s  budget debacle worth reading. For a perspective from outside the state, the Washington Post tries to explain what’s happening here to its readers. The article focuses on how California’s dysfunctional politics contributes to the problem.

For the view from an even greater distance, there’s an article from the United Kingdom’s The Independent reporting on State Controller John Chiang’s warning that California will run out of money in February. The article zeroes in on how spending mandates enacted by voters, combined with limits on property taxes, have made it more difficult for lawmakers to respond to the deficit crisis.

If the controversy was over some arcane public policy that only politicians and academics cared about, the fiasco in Sacramento wouldn’t matter. But the services the state provides in support of economic development and the safety net it provides to our least powerful residents is of vital importance. Especially now. That’s what makes this whole, confusing mess more than confusing. It makes it tragic.

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