In October, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed funding that had been set aside to provide childcare subsidies for people who have moved off welfare. If allowed to stand, the veto would cost more than the savings it would provide because it would send people from their newfound self-sufficiency right back onto the welfare rolls. The Assembly reached into its own operating budget to extend the CalWorks Stage 3 child-care services program by a few crucial weeks, and now in the special session lawmakers plan to re-adopt the program and send it to incoming Gov. Jerry Brown. He should put signing the bill on his early to-do list.
It would be an easy call — except for the glaringly obvious fact that Schwarzenegger convened the current special session so lawmakers would grapple with the $6-billion hole in the current budget, not add a $115.5-million expenditure. On Jan. 10, Brown will present a budget plan to deal with next year's gap — in excess of $20 billion — and to address a continuing year-to-year structural problem that could be closer to $30 billion. The governor-elect made it clear during a forum Wednesday that the budget problem is worse than ever, in large part because many one-time solutions available to Schwarzenegger have been exhausted. Services that Californians want for themselves and for the less fortunate will have to be slashed. Cuts that were previously unthinkable — including the elimination of entire programs — may be inevitable.
So given all that, should Brown still sign the additional expenditure? Yes, he should, and the reasons should provide a road map for other difficult budget decisions.
First, killing the program costs more than it saves. If just a third of CalWorks parents have to return to the dole to take care of their children (forfeiting the paychecks they would get if they were employed), state costs go up instead of down. California will have to make deep cuts this year, but even if they must necessarily be cruel, they need not be fiscally stupid.
Second, Brown will no doubt take a look at Schwarzenegger's proposal to eliminate CalWorks entirely — a move that on paper would address the problem. But, as county supervisors at this week's forum noted, sweeping something off the state books doesn't sweep away the costs. Destitute parents who now turn to counties for CalWorks aid will still turn to local government — but without funding, those governments will have little aid to offer.
Admittedly, it is possible to go through every state program and identify the negative consequences of further cuts or total elimination. There are no longer any pain-free choices; any cut, just like any new tax, will impose unavoidable tangential costs. But as Brown leads California through its budget paces, he must ensure that savings from cuts aren't merely transfers of costs from one part of the budget to another.