Gee, if Gov. Jerry Brown knew it was this simple, we could have had a budget last January.
Instead of months of boring meetings, angry phone calls and furious finger-pointing, he just could have announced during his budget statement that state revenues are going to increase by, oh, let’s say $20 billion over the next year, and that California’s financial problems are over. At least on paper.
Problem is, the state has to pay its bills not on paper but with the cash money that only exists in the real world, not the sort of blue sky guesstimates that are good enough to "balance" next year’s budget.
But what does that matter if the new agreement means legislators will start collecting their paychecks again?
While Brown joined with Assembly Speaker John Perez and Senate leader Darrell Steinberg Monday afternoon for a bit of congratulatory back-slapping, the main difference between the budget the Legislature expects to pass today and the one Brown vetoed is a $4 billion windfall of unexpected revenue expected for next year.
Apparently the state’s economic future has brightened considerably over the past 11 days, although only the governor and Democrats in the Legislature appeared to notice the welcome change.
If that $4 billion doesn’t show up, Brown promised it will trigger more budget cuts that can include a seven-day reduction in the school year and up to $100 million more in trims to the UC and state university systems.
Don’t bet on it. Expect a new round of creative mathematics if there’s even a hint next year that the "trigger" will be pulled on school funding.
In the fine tradition of making lemonade out of lemons, Brown admitted that "it’s a good budget, but not the one I wanted in January."
That’s when the governor said in his State of the State address that Job Number 1 "is fixing our state budget and getting our fiscal spending in line with our revenue. Once we do that, the rest will be easy – at least easier because we will have learned to work together and earned back the respect and trust of the people we serve."
Ah, how’s that going so far, Governor?
The proposed budget still has plenty of the gimmicks that Brown promised wouldn’t be in any budget he signed. It defers $2.8 billion in payments to schools, moving them to some future budget. There’s the $200 million expected to come from taxing online purchases from Amazon, which the company has fought tooth and nail in every other state that proposed it. Then there’s a plan to raise $300 million from increased DMV fees and another $50 million from hitting up rural homeowners for fire protection, which anti-tax folks are guaranteed to challenge.
"The budget’s balanced, but there are some one-time fixes," Brown said.
That doesn’t bother the state’s Republicans, who called the proposed budget a triumph for their "Just Say No" legislative non-plan.
"This announcement proves that there was no need for higher taxes this year," said Tom Del Beccaro, the GOP’s state party chief, "and that the whole budget exercise was nothing more than an attempt to fool the public."
He might get an argument from the UC system and the state university systems, which each lost another $650 million in funding at a time when Democrats and Republicans both agree that excellence in education is the key to California’s future. Or from the majority of Californians who consistently said they wanted a chance to vote on Brown’s proposed tax increases, a choice legislative Republicans decided the state’s voters weren’t competent to make.
Brown and the Democratic leaders used their Monday appearance to slam Republicans for what the governor called their "almost religious reluctance to ever deal with the state budget in a way that requires new revenue."
He also made a quiet declaration of war, promising to "look very seriously at an initiative to generate revenue to create financial stability," sometime next year.
And with angry Democrats and Republicans both preparing to pile sharply partisan measures on the 2012 ballot, the state moves closer to the political "war of all against all" that Brown has warned about.
The governor knows – as do Republicans when they take off their "Taxes Bad" T-shirts in the evening – that a pitched ballot battle will only divert everyone’s energy for the next year and a half from the critical need to deal with the state’s growing list of long-term problems.
Which means, just like this budget, it will be more of the same for California and its residents.
John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.