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California's Summer Budget Wheel Spins

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State Budget Comes Up $19B Short

The State Capitol building in Sacramento.

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For the 24th straight year, California legislators have failed to deliver a state budget to the governor by the constitutionally-required deadline of June 15.  This year, the date came and went without so much as whimper.  

It's become business as usual in the not-so-golden state.  

The danger in this delay will increase dramatically a few days from now, when the new fiscal year begins on July 1.  

That's the time when the state starts spending money from the new budget, purportedly in accordance with how much money will be coming in.  Meanwhile, the Big 5--the governor and the four major leaders in the legislature--have done nothing to build a balanced state budget.  In fact, they have had exactly one meeting on the subject.

The most serious problem is that the state is $19 billion short of what it needs to provide current programs and services at current levels.  Given that California now ranks 47th in per capita public school expenditures and 50th in transportation, the state hasn't been spending money like crazy.  Still, we're short--very short--of what we need.  What to do?  

Democrats say that after two years of $64 billion worth of cuts, the state can't afford to pare anything more from its anemic $85 billion budget; we must find new revenues.  Republicans counter that Californians are over-taxed and more cuts are in order, especially for the poor, disabled and K-12 public education, and higher education.  

The federal courts prevent us from touching prisons, the fast growing expenditure in the state budget.  

While the two sides debate the budget issue, some concrete realities will sink in.  Without a budget, the state will not know how much to spend for what.  That means vendors selling to the state will have to hope that they get paid when the issue finally settles, which could be months from now.  State university students counting on state financial aid will not be able to register for classes or purchase books, perhaps costing them a semester or year.

The patchwork-quilt collection of state-funded assisted living homes for the very poor will try not to go out of business as they await state support.  And the public schools will not no know how many, if any, of the laid off teachers and support personnel they will be able to bring back.  These crises and others occur every year, often harming thousands of innocent lives in the process.

You'd think that the legislature and governor would take this responsibility more seriously--the last time they sent a budget to the governor by the constitutional deadline was in 1986, nearly a quarter century ago.  But the gridlock for which California has become so famous goes on with no sign of breakthrough.  For the moment, once again the state is held hostage, with the only question being, how long will it last this time and how many innocent Californians will be harmed?

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