Also published at The Press Enterprise
The state Legislature is constitutionally obligated each year to pass a budget by June 15 and send it to the governor for his signature, setting the spending agenda of state government for the next 12 months. With the budget requiring only a simple majority vote for approval, whichever party is in power at the time largely decides what is and is not included in the final plan.
This year’s budget, crafted by the Democratic majority, happens to be a record-setter – but not in a good way. It spends more than $265 billion – just over a quarter of a trillion dollars. The amount is $11 billion higher than last year’s record budget.
Experts have warned that large increases in spending may not be sustainable in the long term. California is only now emerging from the recent recession, with both the governor’s Department of Finance and the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office warning that another downturn is inevitable.
Combined with an increased dependence on high-income earners due to recent tax increases, California could easily slide back into difficult financial straits if we do not move forward cautiously.
Because the 2015-16 state budget spends more than is prudent for our state’s economic future, I could not support it.
There is some good news. Education at all levels gets a funding boost. Debt is reduced. Core government programs like courts and the California Highway Patrol are all funded.
However, while these expenditures may be worthwhile, once you dig into the details of such an extensive spending plan, provisions begin to surface that are not in the best interest of taxpayers. As Archbishop Fulton Sheen put it, “The big print giveth and the little print taketh away.”
Here are some of the deal breakers:
High-speed rail gets $500 million. Since this funding comes from a “hidden” gas tax created by regulation under the cap-and-trade program, this tax should not be collected in the first place. If money is coming in while the tax is being fought, it should at least be spent on our aging roads and highways. While so much is being spent on this train, legislation was passed that also reduces accountability in the project’s construction by decreasing the number of progress reports due to the Legislature from two per year to just one every other year. Should we really be reducing accountability and transparency with taxpayers’ money? No!
The budget fails to allow local school districts to build budget reserves. It will prevent districts from saving up money to insulate themselves from future economic crises.
State administrators and regulators continue to be paid excessive salaries. One new position – the Assistant Director of Environmental Justice at the Department of Toxic Substances Control – will cost $200,000 per year. Despite the honorable-sounding title, the position will likely make it more difficult for businesses to operate in this state through increased regulation.
Legislative Democrats use the water crisis to infringe on personal privacy by making confidential well logs open to the general public. These records are already required to be submitted to the Department of Water Resources and are available to the appropriate public agencies for the purposes of managing groundwater. The State Water Resources Control Board is also empowered to enact more fees and regulations. Locals can already be fined $1,000 for violations with threat of the state taking control.
Budget legislation streamlines the environmental regulation process only for well-connected projects, including the new Golden State Warriors basketball arena. We should be looking at reforming the California Environmental Quality Act for all businesses in the state as well as water storage, not just pet projects of Democratic leaders.
Lastly, and egregiously, taxpayers will pay for things like free cell phones with unlimited texting and data plans to replace basic landline phones and welfare cash cards for felons.
Fundamentally, the budget is a reflection of our state’s priorities, and whether or not California is committed to the preservation of a limited government that provides opportunities for society’s most vulnerable while keeping in check the reach of its power. Unfortunately, by this standard, the fine print of the budget again shows we are still heading in a perilous direction.