Don’t Blame Brown for Budget Woes

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Gov. Jerry Brown took hits last week when the projected budget shortfall for this budget year and next jumped from $9 billion to nearly $16 billion.

He got more criticism when an estimate from the legislative analyst put the budget shortfall another $1 billion higher.

These changes were treated by some as a "gotcha," with Brown accused of hiding the size of the problem and various other sins.

It's time to cut this criticism and knock off the numbers game.

It's not merely unfair (a $1 billion difference between an LAO estimate and a gubernatorial estimate is a rounding error in a budget of $130 billion). it's misleading about the nature of the budget problem.

The budget is not a math problem or a personal problem.

California's budget is governed by a complex mix of formulas, initiatives, constitutional provisions and court decisions. You can try to add up cuts and revenue increases to fill a budget hole and not fill it -- because the mix is ratcheting up spending and ratcheting down revenues.

In this context, it's wrong to suggest that the lack of budget-cutting/tax-raising toughness on behalf of this politician or that one is the reason for the budget crisis.

Indeed, the problem is the exact opposite of that.

The formulas govern the budget. The politicians don't. So voters can't get a change in budget priorities by putting politicians who agree with them in power.

Take Brown. The people who voted for him in 2010 certainly didn't cast those ballots in the hopes that he would slash higher education and health and human services programs.

But he doesn't have much choice. The budget formulas push him -- and legislators -- in that direction. The wishes of the voters don't matter a bit.

The budget problem isn't a budget problem. it's a democracy problem.

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Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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