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Assemblyman Donald P. Wagner

California’s Phantom Budget

On Friday, the Legislature passed the state budget and, while I don’t want to sound like a crank, I have to ask: Really? This is how we do things in Sacramento? This is how we govern the nation’s most populous state? This is how we pass the budget – the single most important piece of legislation we’ll consider all year?

I serve on the Budget Committee and thought we had scraped the bottom of the procedural barrel last year. The committee hearing on that final budget lasted only about 45 minutes before the committee chairman cut off questioning to take a vote so that Democratic members of the committee could “catch airplanes.”

But we hadn’t hit bottom. This year, incredibly, the process was worse.

For example, the Budget Committee never even held a hearing and vote on the budget we passed on Friday, so I guess last year’s 45 minutes wasn’t bad. Instead, we had an “informational” presentation of a budget “framework.” In some news reports, Sacramento’s ruling Democrats called it a “concept” for the budget. In any event, there was no vote, even on the “concept” for this year’s budget. Moreover, the language of the budget – the legal words that go into the bill we are supposed to vote on – was not made available to legislators.

Finally, and most amazingly to me, during this informational hearing there were no actual dollars attached to the various budget items. We had broad categories of spending, but the individual amounts on each of the various programs were nowhere in any of the documents the committee had to consider. Indeed, so lacking was this “framework” in basic details – like how much money do we plan to spend this year? – that I had to ask of the witnesses questions like, “So, how much money do we plan to spend this year?”

Believe it or not, I was told that the state’s financial professionals not only did not know, but could not know, the total amount. That’s right. They said they couldn’t calculate the amount of state General Fund spending until after the legislature actually took action. Remember Nancy Pelosi and her infamous comment on ObamaCare that “we have to pass the bill to know what’s in it”? Well, the California state budget apparently also requires a vote before we can know how much we intend on spending.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Given that preposterous answer, though, I persisted in the line of questioning. Surely the Department of Finance or the Legislative Analyst’s Office could ballpark the state’s spending for the next year’s fiscal budget. Assuming the “framework” in “concept” eventually got passed by the legislature and signed by the governor, how much would we be spending out of the General Fund?

And here is where it got very interesting.

I was told that the General Fund spending for fiscal year 2012-13 is expected to be about $92 billion. So I then asked the next logical question, what was General Fund spending for the last fiscal year? The answer: $86.5 billion.

Wait: $92 billion is more than $86.5 billion. The Democrats plan to spend over $5 billion more this year than last year?! We’ve been hearing for months that the state has a roughly $17 billion General Fund budget deficit and needs to cut spending. Where are all of the cuts everyone is talking about?

Now, had any of my Republicans colleagues been involved in the budget writing process I might have been able to ask them to help explain how a growth in spending of more than $5 billion is a cut. Perhaps they could also answer why a growth in spending, no matter what you call it, is a good idea when we face a supposed $17 billion deficit. But, of course, no Republican was involved in the crafting of this spending plan.

The weekend before our informational hearing I had read numerous press reports of closed door meetings of legislative Democratic leadership with the governor. Not a single Republican was invited. Neither the Senate nor Assembly Republican Budget Committee vice-chairmen, nor the Republican leadership in either house, were permitted to attend those meetings. Democrats put this budget together out of public sight without even the pretense of an effort towards bipartisanship.

So the process for putting together this budget was a parody of open, transparent government. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the resulting budget is a bad one. In the end, just what do we have to show for that process? Maybe it’s all ok, and the state somehow still got a good budget out of this ad hoc and “behind closed doors” one party process.

Well, a good budget is in the eye of the beholder. And this one is a good one if you are a legislator depending on the timely passage of a “balanced” budget in order to get paid. Legislative leadership has called this one balanced and passed it on time so that legislative paychecks should continue to flow under Proposition 25.

However, it is not actually a very good budget for the state of California. Budgets are about priorities. The state budget should protect education and public safety. This one fails to do that. It also fails to tackle any of California’s long-term problems, like pensions or our oppressive nanny state. Moreover, times are tough and we have a multi-billion dollar deficit, but General Fund spending is up 6% over last year, including roughly an $800 million increase (not a cut at all) in already generous welfare and other human services spending. Total spending, according to the governor, is projected to increase 29% over the next four years. Will your family’s spending grow 29% over the next four years like your governments spending will? More importantly, will your income grow 29% over the next four years to cover that growth?

The governor certainly plans to have the money, and he knows how to get it. All of this bloated spending is to be fueled by a massive $45 billion tax increase while absolutely no effort is made whatsoever to reform our out-of-control pension problems. And if the tax increase fails, education takes the overwhelming brunt of the Democrats’ retaliation. Education, which should be a priority, remains under threat from the Democrats for massive so-called “trigger cuts.”

In short, that’s your state’s budget and how it got passed by the Legislature.

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2 Responses to “California’s Phantom Budget”

  1. Tuesday Afternoon News and Links | Darth Chipmunk Says:

    […] Flash Report: California’s Phantom Budget […]

  2. California’s Priorities | Darth Chipmunk Says:

    […] how unserious is California’s leadership? According to Assemblyman Donald Wagner: I serve on the Budget Committee and thought we had scraped the bottom of the procedural barrel […]