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Happy New Fiscal Year

By sticking to a few resolutions, California can get out of its perennial budget rut.

June 30, 2010

Like the lonely and lovelorn who face New Year's Eve without a date or a party invitation, California finds itself on yet another June 30 — fiscal New Year's Eve — without a budget. The Legislature was required to adopt one two weeks ago and the governor is mandated to sign it Thursday, but the Legislature hasn't called and the governor didn't even send a card. Fine. We've been here before, year after year. We'll wake up tomorrow with no hangover, no parade, no bowl games, no confetti in our hair, just cranky and bitter.

But this year can still be different if Californians want it to be. All that's required are some resolutions — and enough resolution to stick with them.

First, we must resolve to limit expenditures in good times and hold the savings in reserve. California must eventually give its leaders more decision-making power, not less, but in the current era of mistrust, term limits and supermajority vote requirements, lawmakers have shown themselves unable to exercise restraint when there is money to spend, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proved unwilling to fight them annually to put money aside as a hedge against hard times. Instead, he wants the reserve mandated by law so that he and his successors don't have to battle for it each year. The state needs budget reform, and the governor is right to push for it.

Second, we need to be more careful about whom we spend our time with. We will be courted over the next several months by candidates trying to wow us with clever words and finely honed images, but we need to picture what that person will be like at budget time in four years. Will he or she start out pledging cooperation with the Legislature but then give in too soon, or throw tantrums when lawmakers resist? Will he or she get bored or become impatient or change course while leading the state?

Third, we need to curb our appetite and control our anger. California voted itself into its current budget crisis by adopting ballot measures that demand more from government while limiting its ability to do its work. We already have 10 more propositions on November's ballot, several of them contradictory and many of them arguably counterproductive. There is another way: a comprehensive program of balanced reforms such as the one sent to Sacramento by nonpartisan reform group California Forward. Some lawmakers have been resisting one part of the package or another, putting the whole program in jeopardy. It can, and should, still get on the ballot. It's late. But it's not too late.

It's going to be a long year. But it's going to be an interesting one. With a little thought and a lot of work, we can even make it a good one.

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