Noose tightens, but revenue alone won’t solve CA’s budget problems

150 150 John Guenther

The budget noose tightened again with the announcement yesterday that approximately $80 million in additional trigger cuts would come out of the already parched hide of California’s public school students.  An additional $200 million will be slashed from state-supported universities, colleges and community colleges. No wonder California voters seem poised to consider – seriously for the first time in a long time – one or more of the various measures aimed at raising revenue through increased fees and taxes.  But even if the State succeeds in raising more money, have we really addressed the issue of what it takes to make local programs such as education, job-creation and public safety work. 

The answer is a resounding, “No.”  Because without changes to how budget decisions are made, we are destined to continue to throw good money after bad and suffer from poorly performing public programs. 

The latest budget cuts have the Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD), the largest in California, considering taking the state to court.  What’s more, the inevitability of the cuts highlight a basic problem in how public budgets are funded and why public programs fail:  The state increasingly imposes greater demands on local government, but doesn’t provide adequate funds to either see them through or require any measure of performance.

If the state is to truly come to grips with its fiscal and performance issues, local communities must have the authority and the tools to problem solve.  Under the present system – regardless of how much revenue can be raised — they don’t, and they won’t.  In order to improve results, local governments need to be able to participate in how goals are set, money is spent and collaborate with regional groups to find effective solutions to common problems.

Local control over finances, coupled with government accountability for performance need to become part of the framework of governance in California.

The Government Performance and Accountability Act (GPAA) attacks budget making as a structural problem, and in many important ways, it is.  It augments several of the tax-raising initiatives proposed by Gov. Brown and others by giving local leaders authority and incentives to work together to improve common goals.  It leaves less to the discretion of a deeply divided and dysfunctional legislature and demands accountability at all levels of government for the results achieved – or not achieved.

The State has struggled for years to find ways to give local governments more control over public programs.  Given the impossibility of running a huge, diverse and divided state “in the red,” they now have no choice but to hand over more responsibility to local governments, but with fewer resources and no additional authority to do so.  Local agencies are struggling to cope, and we must find a way to help them.  GPAA gives local governments the tools they need to get the job done.

California’s problems are long-term, but the financial and budget crises have provided a unique opportunity to change the way we do things NOW.

Now that Californians are coming to realize that the state can’t run on good will and past triumphs, they must also recognize that increased revenue by itself is not the answer.  Where the money goes, how it is spent and the return it brings are equally important and the best reason of all to consider the common-sense approach to GPAA provides and its sponsoring organization California Forward promotes.


John Guenther

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