Tuesday, July 1st, California will enter another fiscal year without having approved its budget for next year-again. It has gotten to the point that no one really expects it anymore, but we all moan and complain when it does not happen. The only years we come close are years when there is so much money, everyone’s thirst can be slaked from the fountain of money California’s powerful economy is capable of generating.

And little happens, at least for the first 30 to 90 days because the consequences are delayed by the timing of the billing and payment processes of the state accounting system. No big deal, right? But it IS A BIG DEAL! It shows just how dysfunctional our legislative processes have become.

For voters and workers in the state, it is almost insulting to say, “Go pay your mortgage, balance your checkbook and pay off your credit card bills on $45,000 a year, but don’t get mad at us for not being able to balance a $100 billion budget.” Californians are rightfully incensed.

The real problem at the heart of the budget process is not declining revenues, tax-and-spend liberals, greedy unions, obstructionist conservatives, or cheapskate taxpayers –it is the absence of leadership at the helm of the state. Between the governor and Democrat and Republican leaders, no one is willing to step forward, navigate a wise course and carry the message to the voters.

Instead is a cycle of strategic negotiations designed to preserve the turf of whatever narrow constituency was instrumental in getting each individual elected. For Democrats, it tends to be socially liberal interest groups and public employee unions. For Republicans, it tends to be businesses, taxpayer groups and socially conservative interest groups. And so the conflict is redefined as those who want to raise your taxes and those who want to keep them low.

The real problem is a state budget and local government budget) that are out of control. The conversation this year, when money is lean, should be about identifying our priorities, protecting those, and then making sacrifices elsewhere else (even taxpayers may need to sacrifice) to fund those operations. And if there was any real evidence of this kind of behavior, voters would likely go along.

Instead, leadership by elected leaders is defined as speeches to their key constituencies, demonization of those on the other side and abdication of their responsibility to get the job done. While the last year’s budget could have represented some set of compromises that reflected the result of long negotiations, it mostly represents what happened the year before plus some extra posturing. Even the February legislation to deal with the present year was thin on practical solutions and long on deferring the problem to this next year.

Well it is now time to address next year. The budget itself is out of control with no real oversight or control over what is spent. K-12 education is the biggest category of spending in the budget. In this area alone, over the last decade, state general and special fund spending has risen by almost 90 percent during a period when enrollments have grown by only 9.3 percent. Taxpayers want to see something for this money. Are test scores up by that much? Is teacher quality up by that much? Have class sizes shrunk dramatically? And similar stories can be found in all areas of the state budget.

Taxpayers and voters feel they have received little from their increased investment, thus it is hard for them to be excited about expanding it—even in times of need. We need to get outside our annual baseline-defined box and think about innovative answers to the hard questions.

Does anyone believe we need to fire ten percent of teachers or nurses or firefighters or police to balance our structural deficit? No! We might have to make some short-run sacrifices, but that is just what households and businesses across California are doing this year. Our government needs to make the same kinds of sacrifices.

Then what is the answer? Lots of employers are telling their employees that raises will be slim to nonexistent in this tough year. Why not the state? Perhaps limit COLA and step-based salary increases combined to the two to three percent more common across the private sector. And then limit those only to employees who make less than $45,000 per year. Cap increases in retirement benefits statewide. Switch to a 9/80 or 4/10 workweek (without overtime) to save on utilities and overhead. Encourage telecommuting for all positions possible. Buy fewer office supplies.

And pressure local governments to follow suit. This is a period of fiscal emergency, not a normal year of business as usual. It is time to create some accountability for results in the public finance system. At the statewide level, it is time to go back to the basics. Any and all spending programs should have to be re-approved by the legislature and their specific funding streams should be identified and set aside. If those streams dry up, then the legislature should be required to either provide new, specific funding sources or it should roll back or curtail the program to live within its means. And the governor should have the authority to unilaterally reconcile this amount until the legislature acts.

While many of these ideas are not new or not even bold, they are not even on the table today. Why? Because the vacuum of leadership, accountability and responsibility has sucked the life out of the practical decision making of California’s political processes. Voters will support a budget and a process they believe will produce results and accountability. They will NOT support more of the same incremental, turf-driven irresponsibility that they have seen every year for the last two decades. And yes, if real accountability is introduced into the system, California voters may even support tax increases to pay for those programs in which they believe (if absolutely necessary).

But first their leaders need to deliver some actual leadership and create credible accountability.