Brown's Budget Plan Requires Too Much Magic

Jerry Brown’s budget plan has one glorious sentence of truth. It’s on page two, halfway down: “The traditional budget process is broken and can no longer produce a budget either on time or without resorting to gimmicks.”

The obvious response to such a conclusion would be to build an entirely new process. But that’s not what Brown proposes.

Instead, he offers lots of changes in the timing of the existing process. He also proposes, a bit weirdly, various reforms that are already part of the process, most notably a rainy day fund. Brown ignores the fact that California has multiple rainy day and reserve funds – including one adopted by voters as recently as 2004. None has been big enough to provide the state a cushion given its deficits, and Brown doesn’t explain what would be different about his fund. 

In the end, his eight-page plan scores political points (it’s more detailed than Whitman’s own plan) but ultimately makes a personal argument: The only real fix to the process is to have Jerry Brown in charge of it. He says that by starting earlier, personally engaging all legislators, demanding more money from the federal government, and using the bully pulpit to convince the public of the need for various budget changes, he will succeed where recent governors – all of whom tried these same things – failed.

There are a few intriguing proposals. He calls for the use of pay-as-you-go budgeting (which worked at the federal level during the 90s) and for a constitutional amendment that will require ballot initiatives to identify a funding source for any new spending mandates.

He also makes a strong argument for returning more authority to local governments. “I would work to align program responsibility with revenue authority so that the entity that manages the program is also responsible to pay for it,” he says, which is the fundamental principle that should drive reform in this area: the people who raise the revenues should control the spending. What’s unclear is how Brown would achieve such major reform in the face of overwhelming opposition, not least from Sacramento’s community of lobbyists, who have prospered precisely because power is so centralized in California.

But the main message is that Brown intends to pursue the same ideas and reforms that failed in the past. The plan suggests these ideas succeed now because he would be in charge. This approach is most apparent when he proposes a tax reform commission like the failed 2009 commission convened by Democratic legislators and Gov. Schwarzenegger. Brown acknowledges that failure but suggests trying again. This time, he writes in his plan, “I would be actively involved to ensure the high level focus needed to arrive at consensus.”

Hallelujah! Even if Brown is some kind of wizard who can forge consensus where other mortals can’t, his plan doesn’t offer a lasting solution to this state’s broken budget process. Unless Brown, who is 72 years old, plans to live, and govern, forever.

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