Reporting

California's surplus must be used wisely

November 26, 2013 by Mark Orcutt


(photo credit: Kominyetska)

Three people walk into a doctor’s office: one with a broken leg, another with an infection, and the third with appendicitis. If these three people were treated equally, the doctor would bandage them up and send them on their way.

However, if the doctor treats these people equitably, the focus would be on providing them with the necessary care to achieve health. The first would receive a cast, the second antibiotics, and the last surgery to remove their appendix.

With California enjoying a surplus for the first time in years, some leaders will want to restore funding to programs and services without assessing what is needed to achieve the desired outcomes. However, this is as backwards as applying a bandage to a broken leg.

A panel assembled to discuss equity in California’s budget at a town hall meeting co-hosted by the Greenlining Institute, the Latino Community Foundation, and California Forward could not have agreed more.

Mai Yang Vang, of California Forward’s Partnership for Community Excellence (PCE), put it simply: “If we fail to plan, then we plan to fail.”

The concept of measuring outcomes is not unique to a multi-billion dollar budget. “I grew up in very humble means,” explained Valerie Cuevas of the Education Trust - West. “Which meant every dollar my family spent needed to provide an outcome.”

Not only does focusing on outcomes create an atmosphere that reinforces the effective use of public funds, but it also helps to regain the trust of voters.

While analysts project the budget surplus to reach 2.2 billion by June, our current revenue boost approved by voters last November is only temporary.

Eventually, lawmakers will have to find a long term solution for funding critical services. Voters will likely be hesitant to open up their pocketbooks again if trust in state government remains low.

According to a recent Public Policy Institute of California survey 54 percent of Californians believe that the state government is wasting tax dollars.

An unsurprising corollary is the fact that 7 out of 10 Californians also believe that local governments should have more control over how money is spent at the local level.

Luckily for them, their local public officials have an opportunity under Correctional Realignment and the Local Control Funding Formula to prove that they are capable of handling the responsibility.

“In principle,” says Chris Hoene of the California Budget Project, “shifting services and funding back to the local level is a good thing. However, if there are not good accountability mechanisms in place, programs may go awry.”

For example, new dollars destined for correctional realignment must remain focused on reducing recidivism through rehabilitation, rather than merely transferring the responsibility of warehousing inmates from the state to the county level. The desired outcome of reducing both prison and jail populations in the long term must remain in focus or the shift in funding and authority will go towards recreating the problems they were meant to solve.

While there are considerations to be made when managing California’s surplus, we should not fail to appreciate that we will finally have relief from the perennial cuts that stripped state and local budgets to the bone.

Now that we are back in the black, we must ensure that processes and attitudes change from those that created the deficit in the first place and that whatever ails the state in the future is given targeted, sensible treatment toward a measurable goal.