Listening to How Californians Would Fix Their State Budget

Public research shows widespread support for ‘results-based process’ and ‘multiyear’ budgeting as improvements to state fiscal system

SACRAMENTO — Californians on a bipartisan basis want to see a more open state budget process that ensures tax money is well spent on the highest priorities, according to research commissioned by California Forward.

While confirming deep mistrust of the current budget process, the day-long dialogues with a cross- section of Californians also revealed steps that would begin to rebuild the public’s trust in government. In particular, people wanted reforms that would enable them to see how their tax money is being spent and whether programs are working. And in all of the dialogues held across the state, rebuilding trust in state government was a prerequisite for broad support for higher taxes or lowering the two-thirds threshold to pass the budget.

The research, conducted in six day-long sessions in different parts of the state, presented Californians with information on the fiscal crisis and the budget process. Participants used as a starting point a set of values-based alternatives for reforming the state budget process. Among these wide-ranging options, two elements consistently received widespread support in all dialogues across all demographic categories:

Focusing on priorities and results. The public recognized that public programs are important, but were not convinced they are working efficiently and being effective. They want to know more about the choices to be made – in terms of cuts and tax increases – and they want more opportunities to influence them.

• Looking to the Future: Extend the Fiscal Horizon by Using Multiyear Budgeting. The participants believed that budget decisions should be based on long-term goals and take into consideration the implications of fiscal decisions on future generations.

The discussions were conducted by Viewpoint Learning, a California-based firm that specializes in civic engagement and dialogue-based methods that probe deeper than public opinion polls or focus groups. Viewpoint Learning’s methods help participants identify common ground, particularly as they learn more about specific problems and choices. California Forward, a bipartisan public interest organization, commissioned the research to better understand which budget reforms would meet the public’s expectations for a better system.

California Forward is making progress on its efforts to promote public understanding and support for fiscal and governance reforms. This research confirms that in the mind of the public we aren’t just struggling with the budget because of the fiscal crisis. The first crisis is one of trust,” said Leon E. Panetta, co-chair of California Forward. “California cannot be a leader in the 21st century if its budget-making process is dysfunctional. Our future is dependent on whether we are willing to enact the kinds of fiscal reforms that will restore public trust in state government.”

Thomas McKernan, who co-chairs California Forward with Mr. Panetta, said it is clear that the public wants government to be successful, but it needs to focus on results and take the long-term view if it is to regain the public’s confidence.

“The public wants its leaders to win back their trust,” McKernan said. “They want to believe that these reforms can happen, and that our budget system will work for everyone. The time is right, to once and for all provide a guarantee to the public that our leaders are fixing a broken budget system and ensuring we never wind up in this fiscal crisis ever again.”

Each of the six dialogues involved 35 to 45 randomly recruited Californians and took place in six different cities around California. The total sample was diverse and demographically representative of the state population. In each session, participants spent the day in small groups and in plenary working through the choices and tradeoffs involved in reforming the budget process. Participants learned about the current budget process, but more importantly learned from one another, and at the end of the session identified the sorts of budget and tax reforms they would likely support, and the conditions for that support, as well as reforms they were unlikely to support without a significant effort to re-establish trust between Californians and their government.

Most participants concluded that investing in programs that benefit Californians is more important than keeping taxes low. They agreed that all Californians must pay their fair share, without an undue burden on the poor. They favored taxes dedicated to specific purposes. And they had strong reservations about modifying Proposition 13, the 1978 ballot measure limiting property taxes.

At the state level, most participants came to view vote thresholds to approve the budget and tax increases as a necessary evil. Participants understood the argument against them, but described the threshold as an important protection in a highly polarized political environment. Most participants did not trust either side with so much power, and they believe the two-thirds requirements forces the two sides to talk to each other.

The major and recurring theme in the dialogues was the need to change the relationship between Californians and their governments. Participants repeatedly expressed their mistrust of government and called for greater accountability and transparency. As the dialogues proceeded it became clear that these were really calls for more effective and honest two-way communication.

In the coming days, California Forward will put forth a proposal for a new state budget process with the potential to help legislators make difficult choices in ways that over time can improve the value of public expenditures and begin to restore public trust. This proposal is predicated on the principles for reform published earlier this year, refined by conversations with thousands of insightful state, regional and community leaders. For more information visit http://www.caforward.org.

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