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A reality-based budget

Gov. Brown has warned of tough choices and deep cuts. But the plan must still be sensible.

January 10, 2011

Gov. Jerry Brown did a good job of preparing Californians for a budget proposal that inflicts sharp pain. Even before he took office, he led two forums intended to drive home the depth of the state's fiscal crisis. His aides dropped hints, but not details, about proposals to slash Medi-Cal, return responsibility for welfare to counties, eliminate redevelopment agencies and end some tax breaks for corporations. Far more than his predecessor, who rode into office promising to cut taxes, Brown's message has been stark: We're in trouble. We have to do something. It's going to hurt.

And indeed, there will be pain. The big cost-free and cost-effective decisions already have been made. Every cut will have negative consequences. But that will be insufficient as an argument against them.

In examining Brown's budget proposal, which he formally releases Monday, Californians must ask whether the cost of each action the governor recommends is greater or lesser than the failure to act. We're likely to find that in many cases the failure to act -- a failure this state has lived with for decades -- is worse than no action at all.

But budget pain need not be inflicted indiscriminately or punitively. It may necessarily undermine, but must not obliterate, the state's cherished values of educating our children, preserving our environmental heritage and caring for our neediest residents. No budget can eliminate costs; at best it will transfer them, perhaps from Sacramento to counties, from the population at large to the poor, from redevelopment agencies to schools. In addition to outlining who will shoulder the costs, Brown must be prepared to explain why the transfer is justified.

He must also distinguish between program cuts intended to tide the state over until the economy recovers and tax revenues rebound, and those cuts intended to be permanent because the state is the wrong entity to provide the services. For example, if costs for human services are to be moved off the state books in perpetuity, Brown must lay out how counties should expect to handle the new costs that will fall on them. A transfer of responsibility without a concurrent transfer of revenue -- or the power to raise the necessary revenue -- would be simply one more fiscal gimmick.

Californians are up to this challenge. Brown helped get us on the right track with his stark but straightforward assessment of the crisis. He can keep us focused with an equally straightforward, if equally stark, budget proposal -- followed by an honest discussion of options and consequences.

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