Californians want real solutions

150 150 Fred Keeley and Bruce McPherson

Source: The Sacramento Bee

After four consecutive years of budget deficits, Californians are wise to the accounting gimmicks and short-term fillers that keep California lurching from budget year to budget year without the kind of stable system in place that protects the programs they need and want.

It is still possible to gain their support by ensuring that the budget fixes on the ballot in June are long-term, structural reforms that will put California back on the road to prosperity.

That’s what California Forward – a nonpartisan organization dedicated to changing state government – is proposing. Our plan matches the best practices of other states and it’s what the people deserve.

The public view is particularly important here because Gov. Jerry Brown is sticking firm to a campaign pledge not to raise taxes or even to extend temporary tax increases without a vote of the people. The temporary tax increases begun in 2009 will expire after June 30, and lawmakers must focus on the long-term performance of public programs and not on politically expedient stopgaps that don’t fix the structural problems.

Some of the many reforms that would move California in this direction include performance-based budgeting and a two-year budget cycle to help lessen volatility. We also believe in realignment, the principle that says some government services should be moved to the local level. A budget solution without these overarching reforms runs the risk of delaying the problem instead of solving it.

Performance-based budgeting means that the governor and legislators should establish clear goals and performance measures for all programs funded by the state. At least once every 10 years, lawmakers should review programs to determine if they should continue, or how they can be improved.

This kind of accountability will help lawmakers re-establish trust with their constituents – something lacking today.

We also believe that comprehensive budget reform should include multi-year budget planning where the governor and Legislature prepare two-year budgets and three- and five-year fiscal forecasts, and publish updates on the state’s forecasted fiscal condition prior to the budget vote and early in the subsequent fiscal year.

We also believe in pay-as-you-go for new programs and tax reductions. Major new or expanded programs, taxes or tax credits should identify how they will be financed by additional revenue or compensatory spending reductions. Spikes in revenue, after meeting minimum K-14 funding obligations, should be used to fill the rainy day fund and for other one-time uses, starting with paying down debt.

Thus far, potential solutions to this crisis have run the full range: from higher taxes only to cuts only, with some kind of middle ground being at the heart of most rational debate. But all of the polling, regardless of the sponsor, shows a growing consensus among Californians – Democrats, Republicans and independents alike – that government wastes too much of their money.

The same polls show that voters are far more likely to support temporary tax extensions if reforms are put in place to make sure their tax money is well spent. From their perspective, performance-oriented budget reforms are the next right step in the path forward.

Gov. Brown has put forth a plan that includes budget cuts and tax extensions and has stated that he wants to restructure government services to improve public programs. Alongside that, a new Senate committee was formed to focus on the restructuring of government services.

Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, and Sen. Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, are leading that effort and have held hearings on the potential for reducing administrative costs and improving outcomes in government services.

These are welcome steps forward: A systemic change in our budget procedures that is open to the public and gives us a realistic understanding of how California is doing is our best chance to succeed in producing a more efficient and effective government.

Lawmakers must not focus on short-term, easy fixes. They must dive in and do the difficult work of restructuring California’s fragmented and broken budget process. Fixes won’t be easy, and both sides of the aisle are going to have to make uncomfortable choices – but it must be done. This is what the people expect.

As a Republican and a Democrat, we urge Gov. Brown and legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle to take bold steps and offer solutions that match the magnitude of the problem and the greatness of our state. As part of that we hope they will consider California Forward’s reforms and put them on the June ballot. Long-term, stable budgeting is the only solution that will regain the people’s trust and prevent future budget crises.

Fred Keeley and Bruce McPherson serve on the CA Fwd Leadership Council.


Fred Keeley and Bruce McPherson

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