Timm Herdt: State Legislature gets past budgetary Groundhog Day

February 8, 2013 

For the first time in at least five years, and arguably a full decade, Groundhog Day has come and gone in Sacramento and the calendar actually turned over to the following day.

The Groundhog Day analogy has nothing to do with the early-morning comings and goings of the rodent Punxsutawney Phil on Feb. 2.Rather, it refers to the unsettling plot line of the 1993 film "Groundhog Day," in which actor Bill Murray finds himself caught in the Twilight Zone experience of reliving the exact same day, over and over again.

Essentially, the same plot has unfolded every winter in Sacramento. Lawmakers, who had passed a supposedly balanced budget a few months earlier, would learn that their budget was now out of balance, that they were confronted with making midyear cuts, and that they were again staring down a daunting shortfall for the following year.

The annual response was that they would see their shadows, duck back into their holes and pass a budget that would enact some spending cuts but also rely heavily on gimmicks such as internal borrowing and overly optimistic revenue projections.

The result is that their legislative Groundhog Day was repeated, year after year.

Former Republican Sen. Tony Strickland of Moorpark was fond of invoking the Groundhog Day analogy. He might not have had the prescription for how to avoid its recurrence, but he had the diagnosis exactly right.

But Groundhog Day 2013 has come and gone, and like Bill Murray's character at the film's end, elected officials in Sacramento are awakening to a new day with a sense of wonder, joy -- and, Californians can only hope, the self-awareness of what they had been doing wrong all those year.

Murray's character was delivered to a new day only after he learned to shed his arrogant, self-centered personality and develop the right combination of selflessness, charity and love that allowed him to escape his fate.

Sacramento officials might not have undergone such a noble transformation. But they did do two things right. They made real cuts in ongoing spending, and they went to voters with a real, if temporary, solution to raise taxes and starkly explained the consequences of what an endless Groundhog Day would mean to the state's most important and expensive obligation -- to fund education.

It wasn't the first time they had gone to voters in attempts to break free from Groundhog Day, but it was the first time they had done so with sincerity. The other attempts had been too cute, too clever and, in one case, just too stupid to break the cycle. That last one was a successful 2004 measure to borrow $15 billion just to meet the state's annual ongoing obligations, the equivalent of paying for groceries with a maxed-out credit card.

Last fall's Proposition 30 was a straightforward proposal: Raise taxes for seven years, break the Groundhog Day cycle and make it possible to start restoring education funding.

Now, Gov. Jerry Brown foresees balanced budgets in each of the next five years. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office says "the state has reached a point where its underlying expenditures and revenues are roughly in balance." Californians are responding with optimism.

A poll released last week by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California shows that, for the first time since the onset of the recession, a majority of Californians believe their state is headed in the right direction.

They rewarded Brown with the highest approval rating since he returned for his second stint as governor in January 2011. They gave the Legislature its highest approval rating since December 2007.

Now that Groundhog Day has ended, lawmakers must resist behaving as if it's Christmas morn.

As Brown cautioned, "The people have given us seven years of extra taxes. Let us follow the wisdom of Joseph, pay down our debts and store up reserves against the leaner times that will surely come."

The PPIC survey indicated public agreement on that: 68 percent favored strict limits on the amount state spending could increase in any given year, and by 55 percent to 38 percent respondents preferred using post-Groundhog Day money to pay down debt and build a reserve rather than using it to restore some of the cuts to social service programs.

With Groundhog Day finally over, what Californians are looking forward to now is a New Year's Day resolve to make certain it never returns.


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