National Opinions

Dan Walters: Budget analyst says California can't evade reality

By purest happenstance, Mac Taylor became the Legislature's budget analyst last year just as the state was plummeting into the fiscal abyss of multibillion-dollar deficits, a credit rating that's lowest in the nation, payment deferrals because of cash shortages and no political plans, or perhaps even will, to arrest the plunge.

The Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) has a long and honorable history of advocating governmental efficiency and nonpartisan, reality-based approaches to government finance, albeit advice that the Legislature and the governor more often than not ignore as they fashion expedient political deals.

Taylor is continuing that tradition, with a new twist. Rather than issuing a single massive analysis of the governor's budget in the latter part of February, which has been the LAO's long-standing practice, he has been releasing a series of briefer reports by subject area, such as education, prisons, natural resources and so forth, as well as an overview of the state's entire budget dilemma.

These new reports deal not only with the dollars and cents but delve into the history and policies that lie beneath the money. Most importantly, they propose ways in which the public's dollars could be better spent.

The unspoken theme of these reports is that this immense fiscal crisis is also an opportunity to fix the outmoded, illogical, unworkable and often contradictory policy decrees that have contributed mightily to the problem, in order not only to ease the current deficit's impact but to forestall, or at least mitigate, what would otherwise be a string of such crises in the future.

Taylor's telling us that we cannot evade reality, that we cannot continue to promise more in services than our revenue system can support, even in non-recessionary periods.

One of the LAO's sister agencies, the California State Auditor, weighed in on the state's crisis itself this week, declaring the budget to be a "high-risk issue" and pointing out that over the past 20 years, 12 state budgets have had deficits, just eight had surpluses and, startlingly, the cumulative deficits of $146 billion were nearly five times as large as the $30 billion in surpluses.

That factoid should prove, if there still is a doubt, that California's budget crisis is long-term and structural, not simply something that resulted from the current recession, although the downturn has certainly made it much worse.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders have been negotiating on a solution to the deficit, and it's possible that something will emerge publicly next week.

The only rational measure to judge any fiscal rescue plan is this one: Would it adopt the common-sense approach that the LAO has advocated for years and deal with the structural issue that the State Auditor's report quantifies. Or would be it another exercise in reality-denying political expediency that would solve nothing in the long run?

Dan Walters is a columnist for The Sacramento Bee.