It really is budget Doomsday in California

Let’s take as a given that the chances of passing a reasonable California state budget—one that puts the state on a path to long-term solvency while protecting the most essential public services—range from improbable to zero. Still, even against those long odds, wouldn’t it help things along if Dan Walters could be bothered to give his readers more facts and less snark? 

In his Dec. 15, 2010 column, “Brown’s doomsday strategy very risky,” Walters chides California’s old-new governor Jerry Brown for suggesting that the huge gap between expected revenues and baseline spending will force unpleasant cuts in schools. That gap amounts to more than $20 billion in the coming year, equivalent to nearly one-quarter of the annual general fund budget. Walters implies that Brown is pursuing the state equivalent of a “Washington Monument strategy.” That’s when bureaucrats defend their budgets by arguing that any cut will to force them to wipe out their most publicly visible activity. 

“No politician ever threatens to cut welfare grants, health services for the poor or other programs that don’t affect middle-class voters,” Walters writes; “instead, voters are told that their personal safety and/or their children’s futures would be at risk.” 

The only trouble is, all of this is either untrue or misleading. 

It doesn’t take much of a memory, or more than a couple of seconds on a search engine, to recall that some guy named Arnold Schwarzenegger threatened to not only cut welfare grants, but also eliminate them altogether. 

“California no longer has low-hanging fruits,” Schwarzenegger said way back in May. “As a matter of fact, we don’t have any medium-hanging fruits. We also don’t have any high-hanging fruits. We literally have to take the ladder away from the tree and shake the whole tree.” How soon we—or at least some of us—forget. 

What’s true for welfare grants applies to health services for the poor. Politicians like Schwarzenegger have not only threatened to cut them; they’ve actually carried out the threats, reducing benefits in recent budgets. 

But it’s also misleading in the extreme to imply that cuts to health services don’t affect middle-class voters. About two-thirds of Medi-Cal dollars go to care for the elderly and disabled. Without Medi-Cal, the cost of their care would otherwise fall on their middle-class families. And every one of those Medi-Cal dollars is income to someone in the health industry—a doctor, nurse, lab tech, hospital administrator, nursing home operator. Those jobs account for around one-sixth of the state’s output. They also form the backbone of the middle class. California voters, who routinely tell pollsters that they want to protect health services, seem to understand this better than Walters. 

And finally, there’s Walters’ false implication that telling voters that schools are at risk is only some political game or gambit. 

As the Legislative Analyst recently reported, even if the state had enough revenue in the upcoming year to fully fund schools at the Prop 98 minimum guarantee, “the minimum guarantee would fall $5.2 billion short of fully funding baseline K-14 costs in 2011-12.” In other words, California is looking next year at a roughly 10 percent reduction in school funding, on the natural. This is on top of the recent cuts that have forced teacher layoffs, shorter school years, and bigger classes. And it’s before anyone in the state Capitol asks schools to share in the pain of closing the budget deficit. 

So say what you will about Jerry Brown, he’s not pulling anybody’s leg here. If this is not yet budget Doomsday in California, Doomsday is within sight. 

Is it politically risky to deliver that news? Probably. But somebody has to. We’re apparently not going to get the news from Dan Walters.