Defining Failure Down

One of the consequences of having the least functional governing system in the world is that the bar for determining what constitutes success gets set very low. Even the most ordinary and trivial things in California get counted as a victory.

A case in point is George Skelton’s column in the Los Angeles Times, triumphantly announcing “that Proposition 25 [the majority-vote budget measure] worked. California’s Capitol has become less dysfunctional.”

Yes, the Legislature and governor have enacted a budget before the July 1 start of the fiscal year, a rare event in Sacramento over the last quarter of a century. It’s good to have a budget in place as the fiscal year begins. It lets the state borrow the operating cash it needs and avoids the messy business of delaying payments to vendors and local governments that happens when a budget isn’t enacted before the fiscal year begins.

But as nice as it is to have a timely budget, it’s more critical to have a good one, and to have political accountability for the result. Looked at in that light, California’s first experience with the Prop 25 system has been a rocky ride:

  • As you might expect in cases where it takes a majority to pass a spending plan but a two-thirds supermajority to pass the taxes to fund that spending, the budget is dubiously balanced. It depends on school funding provisions that probably do not meet the state’s Prop 98 constitutional minimum but won’t be challenged because the California Teachers Association (CTA), the group most likely to sue, was in on the deal. It assumes $4 billion in revenue that the state in all likelihood will not collect. This assumption is offset by provisions that will trigger additional mid-year cuts, largely to higher education and schools. But the budget also contains language that prevent school districts from taking steps to reduce staff to meet these anticipated trigger cuts. To the extent the state budget is balanced, it is at the cost of driving many school districts into insolvency through payment deferrals and restraints on their ability to reduce costs.

  • Prop 25’s debut was marked by the Controller John Chiang’s unconstitutional announcement that it somehow gave him the power to withhold legislators pay even though they had met the measure’s requirement that they pass a budget by June 15. Chiang contended that he had the authority, nowhere present in the constitution, to check the Legislature’s arithmetic to determine whether the budget was balanced. By the criteria he used on June 21 in withholding pay, the arithmetic is still dicey. But Chiang will now resume legislators’ pay. Why? Maybe the budget is only unbalanced when CTA doesn’t like it.

  • Once again, California has a budget for which no one is clearly accountable. Democrats passed it, but none of the Democratic lawmakers who voted for it, nor the governor who signed it, wanted this budget. It was the best they could do without extending the 2009 temporary taxes, for which there were no Republican votes. But neither did GOP legislators want this budget; they all voted against it. Some of them are already complaining of cuts that harm pet projects in their own districts. So who do we now hold accountable? The people who voted for the budget they didn’t want, or the people who made inevitable the budget they didn’t vote for and claim not to like?

  • And if there is any budget for which we Californians would want to hold accountable, it is this one. It is disastrous for California’s future. It hacks $1.75 billion out of higher education. It will most likely slash the length of the school year, already the shortest in the world. It will take away services from hundreds of thousands of the blind, disabled, elderly, developmentally disabled, and the working poor.

If that is what the media now count as California getting “less dysfunctional,” we’re in much deeper doo-doo than I ever imagined.