For California’s budget, it has been a week of the worst of times and then even worse. With California once again confronting a massive budget shortfall estimated at more than $25 billion, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a fiscal emergency on this week, pulling legislators into a special pre-holiday session to discuss his package of cuts—nearly all of which were swiftly rejected by Democrats, who characterized them as “recycled” ideas.
Governor-elect Jerry Brown then took the stage, playing host at a budget briefing on Wednesday, where he suggested the state’s budget shortfall may be closer to $28.1 billion over the next year and a half. “What we are looking at today is worse than it’s ever been before,” Brown told the gathering of legislators and state finance experts. “And our opportunities to fix it are very limited.”
As state leaders grapple with California’s budgetary monster, there appears to be growing awareness in Sacramento that the problem may no longer be solvable with the usual solutions. “When I look at a $25 billion deficit, I think the present structure of government is not sustainable,” Darrell Steinberg, Senate President Pro Tem, said recently. “The choice is to make massive cuts that will harm people and harm the economic recovery, or to raise taxes, which is politically impossible.”
So what to do? Some legislators, including Steinberg, are beginning to rally around another option—one that California Forward has been a leading advocate of for several years. “The third way,” Steinberg says, “is to move services closer to the people.” Getting our state back on track, in other words, can only happen if we find a way to empower Californians locally—giving local leaders and the voters they represent the authority and flexibility they need to more effectively connect local problems with local solutions.
How this would work—and how we can get there—is the subject of a statewide conversation called Speak Up California that California Forward has begun across the entire state. Over the next few months, we invite civic leaders, business groups, non-profit advocates, elected officials, and other interested Californians to participate in a series of community and online gatherings to discuss how to fix our state and refocus our government.
As these conversations continue across the state, we’re pleased to see the discussion in Sacramento moving in a similar direction. The budget discussions this week have not yet included talk of specific solutions, but Gov.-elect Brown during the campaign seemed to make his preferences clear. “I’m not going to give you any phony plans or snappy slogans that don’t go anywhere,” Brown said in one ever-present campaign commercial. “We have to make some tough decisions. We have to live within our means, [and] we’ve got to take the power from the state capital and move it down to the local level, closer to the people.”
That sounds good to us—and good for California.
Justin Ewers is a project manager for California Forward.