What is the first priority of the state in this budget season?

The Sacramento consensus – which includes Gov. Brown, leading media types, and other wise folks – is that the first priority shouldn’t be health, or boosting education, or restoring cuts to higher education. The first priority should be putting money in the Prop 2 rainy day fund.

Indeed, it is already raining – raining propaganda in support of the rainy day fund. We’re told over and over by good government types who championed it that the fund is “working,” presumably because it will have $9 billion in it. And interest groups that know better – like the California Teachers Assn. – have surrendered to this propaganda, with CTA going so far as to change a ballot initiative on taxes to make sure it incorporated the rainy day fund.

But the hard truth is that the rainy day fund isn’t working for the state.

That fund is hurting us in two ways. For one, it’s not nearly big enough. Even a $9 billion fund isn’t enough to make much difference at all in even an average-downturn. That’s well less than 10 percent of the budget; we’ll need 20 percent or more to cover costs in a downturn.

But the rainy day fund hurts in an even bigger way. It’s effectively locked in lower-spending levels that are legacies of the reception and the bigger budget deficits of the previous decade.

Worse still, the rainy day fund is a major distraction. Balancing the budget and putting money into the rainy day fund has become the highest priority of the state. So we focus on that – and not on making the big reforms and investments that the state and its people need to do much better in the long term.

It’s a strategy of avoidance.

And so questions that are more important than a small amount of money in a rainy day fund aren’t being answered. For example, how much more money should we be putting into public higher education to reduce tuition and produce the additional college graduates the state needs? What do we need to do to boost the production of housing, in a state with shortages of housing in almost every category? And how could we produce the additional revenues we need to have top-notch schools, with longer school years, and much higher-performing students?

Heck, the rainy day fund is such an untouchable that no one is comparing the value of money in that fund with money to other sources. Which would be a better investment — $9 billion in a rainy day fund now, or $9 billion in additional funds for health care? Or to boost enrollment in our public universities? Or to lengthen the school year and school day?

Saving for a rainy day is important – indeed, we should be saving more. But saving must be tied to a plan for investing. And California doesn’t have such a plan.