Gimmickry found in new state budget

June 15, 2013 

Fortunately, no legislators got hurt as they patted themselves on the backs for meeting their constitutional deadline for approving the new budget.

More importantly, thanks to voters who approved a $6 billion tax hike last year, the Legislature on Friday approved a balanced $145 billion budget, with a $98 billion general fund that will pay down some of the state's debt. As happens in each year, however, the 2013-14 spending plan contains its share of gimmicks.

This year, Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic leaders favored approving spending increases that will kick in at the end of the fiscal year or next year, giving the impression that the budget is more austere than it is.

There are explanations for the delays. One is that by putting off the increases, the state can be certain that revenue will be available to pay for the new, restored and expanded programs. However, the delays also smack of gamesmanship.

The new budget provides a 5 percent increase in welfare grants. After years in which the grants were flat or cut, an increase is appropriate.

However, this particular increase won't kick in until next March 1, when the fiscal year is three-fourths over. The cost in the 2013-14 fiscal year will be $50 million, rising to $150 million in the following year.

The same pattern occurs with restoration of dental care for poor adults who get their health care through Medi-Cal. State lawmakers suspended the program in 2009, when the tax revenue cratered in the Great Recession. With revenue rising, Democrats led by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg made restoration of adult dental care a priority, appropriately so.

But adults on Medi-Cal won't be able to get their teeth checked and repaired until May 2014, when the fiscal year is five-sixths over. By starting then, the overall budget cost will be $55.3 million, including $17 million from the general fund, dust in an overall budget of $145 billion and a general fund of $98 billion.

We certainly don't begrudge poor adults dental care. But we also appreciate budgets that make clear the costs.

The biggest use of budget gimmickry this year involves Speaker John A. Perez's beloved middle-class scholarships, a new program that is intended to subsidize tuition for families whose annual income is between $80,000 and $150,000.

The program will begin with the 2014-15 school year, at a cost to state taxpayers of $107 million, rising to $305 million in the 2017-18 fiscal year.

The program's kick-off would coincide with the 2014 campaign, giving Perez, a potential statewide candidate, something about which to speechify when he stumps on college campuses.

Legislators do deserve praise for this year's budget, though not for meeting their constitutional deadline. Working stiffs regularly meet deadlines, and most taxpayers dutifully pay their taxes on time each April 15.

What's praiseworthy is that lawmakers approved a balanced budget that sets priorities that a majority of the electorate would laud. However, voters are grown-ups. They deserve to be leveled with about the actual costs.

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