Let’s face it, when it comes to the state budget of California, most citizens suffer from MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over). Because even public finance experts are confused by the thousands of pages of budget documents, it’s no wonder that citizen taxpayers don’t stand a chance. Besides, normal people are too busy working hard to pay for all the spending increases reflected in the budget.
Nonetheless, passage of the state budget remains one of the most important functions of the Legislature because it reflects the state’s spending priorities for years in the future. Here are some key takeaways that should concern every California taxpayer.
First, government spending is out of control. While projected revenues are up eight percent – a good thing – from a year ago, expenditures continue to accelerate at a faster clip, up by nearly eleven percent to a record $138 billion budget. When other state funds, including special funds, are added to the total, nearly $200 billion in state funds will be spent in this budget. Legislators will argue that some of these expenditures are going to bolster a rainy day fund to protect against an economic downturn. While this fund is also at a record $14 billion, this will hardly protect state programs even in the event of even a moderate recession. Second, we doubt that the spending priorities of politicians reflect what taxpayers think are important. For example, this year’s budget includes a billion-dollar plan to completely remodel the State Capitol, while the state continues to lose ground on nearly a trillion dollars of unfunded pension obligations.
Finally, as in prior years, the 2018-19 budget is a vehicle for numerous abuses. It is now common to enact politically motivated legislation as so-called budget “trailer bills” as a means to avoid any meaningful analysis and public hearings. This column previously alerted readers to one such sneak attack, a precedent-setting tax on water that thankfully was beaten back – at least for now. But two other proposed bills represent the worst of Sacramento special-interest politics.
Two years ago, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association sponsored Assembly Bill 195 (Obernolte), a bill that increased transparency for local bonds and special taxes by requiring disclosure of the rate, duration and amount of revenue to be raised. AB 195 mandates that these important facts be included in the actual ballot label, typically the last thing voters read before deciding.
Now, education lobbyists and building trades groups are attempting to delay the implementation of AB 195 for local bonds by two years, to keep this important information from being presented to voters. In other words, our legislators are using a corrupt, non-transparent process to deprive local voters of transparency regarding the cost of bonds at the local level. This is a double insult to taxpayers.
The other abuse of the budget process focuses on PRIDE Industries, a non-profit in the Sacramento region that provides services for individuals with developmental disabilities. One of the places that PRIDE Industries contracts with is a state prison in Stockton to provide janitorial services. At least that was true until public employee unions realized that the workers were non-union and forced language into a budget bill to change that. The bill would have forced those with disabilities to pass a civil service exam in order to keep their jobs, a challenge for some of them. For the most part, the unions were forced to back down because, even using the discredited “trailer bill” process, the optics of such selfishness created a negative public backlash.
There is an old saying that “laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” In California, the budget process is sufficiently corrupt that, even compared to other legislation, it is best to avert one’s eyes.