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State Taxpayers Deserve More for Their $68 Billion

With delays and malaise a predictable part of developing the spending plan, it's time to institute common-sense reforms.

August 10, 1997|ROBERT M. HERTZBERG | Robert M. Hertzberg is a member of the California Assembly, representing the 40th Assembly District in the San Fernando Valley

This year's state budget delay regretfully comes as little surprise to many Californians. The current delay, the second-longest in state history, marks the 10th time in the last 11 years the budget will arrive after the constitutional deadline.

These delays have grown progressively worse, with the three longest ones occurring in the last six budget years.

The calls for budget reform grow louder each day the state lacks a budget. Despite the criticism, however, the Legislature has taken few steps to reform the process.

During the fiscal crises of the 1980s, the Legislature responded by authorizing the Big 5--the legislative leaders of both houses and the governor--to negotiate budget agreements.

But history has proven that this mechanism has not resulted in the desired solution.

The state needs comprehensive reform of the budget process. This Legislative session may be the best time to achieve reform.

The repeated occurrence of budget delays has led to the circulation of a significant number of thoughtful ideas to reform the budget process.

In addition, term limits have changed the dynamics of the Legislature. Legislators know they have limited time to accomplish their goals and so are more willing to take risks and less willing to abide by old traditions.

The Legislature has several options to reform the budget process:

* Change the current one-year budget to a two-year budget. The Legislature annually invests a vast amount of time and energy on a budget that is relatively short-lived. In a few months, the process begins all over again. A two-year budget would produce longer-term planning and permit legislators to focus on legislation and their constituents.

* Change the fiscal year. The state's inability to pass a timely budget affects the counties, whose own budgets depend on the state's budget. To allow local jurisdictions to make better projections, the state should move its deadline back a couple of months.

* Require a long-term plan as part of the budget act. The annual budget process is ad hoc and fails to address the state's long-term needs. A long-term capital outlay program does not fit well into a short-term annual budget structure. A long-term plan is essential to any major corporation and certainly should be a requirement of an entity with a $68-billion budget.

* Write the budget in plain, jargon-free language. The budget is a political document because it states the Legislature's political priorities. Every citizen should be able to read the budget and understand what is being proposed. Instead, the budget is a document read and understood by a few bureaucrats and legislative staffers.

* Change the vote requirement from a two-thirds to a majority vote. This reform would have the most immediate impact on the budget process. California is one of a handful of states that requires a two-thirds vote. The old argument that this super-majority vote requirement prevents immoderate spending by the Legislature is unwarranted. The governor still maintains a line-item veto and the Legislature still needs a two-thirds vote to raise any state tax. Ultimately, the voters are the greatest check on any abuse of spending authority by a Legislative majority.

The people of California are fed up with the inability of the Legislature to fulfill its constitutional duty to pass a timely budget.

Individual legislators are equally frustrated by the delay and their inability to influence a process controlled largely by the Big 5.

Concerned citizens and policymakers have long discussed fixing the budget process, but nothing was ever accomplished. Things have changed. The time to fix the budget process is now.

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