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Patt Morrison Asks

Jean Ross: Budgeteer

Ross' zest for the budget and California governance, in all their wonky, wacky, labyrinthine detail, has made her a go-to green eyeshade for budgets past, present and -- should there actually be one -- future.

March 05, 2011|Patt Morrison

Sisyphus had better odds of getting that rock to the top of the hill than California seems to have of getting its fiscal act together. One woman -- first working under the Capitol dome and, since 1995, a couple of blocks from it -- has seen the budget grow and shrink and change and swim in black ink and red. Jean Ross worked for three Assembly committees until she took the job of first executive director of the independent California Budget Project, where she watchdogs the spend-while-you-cut budget hell captured on a New Yorker magazine cover she framed and keeps in her office. Ross' zest for the budget and California governance, in all their wonky, wacky, labyrinthine detail, has made her a go-to green eyeshade for budgets past, present and -- should there actually be one -- future.

How did the budget get away from us? The disequilibrium seems enormous: outrageous spending, a lopsided tax structure. Where do you start?

Certainly there are different analyses, depending on what you see as the rightful role of government. And I come down on the side that government does have a legitimate and important role to play.

[The problems have] been exacerbated by the layers of different ballot measures that lock down pieces of money so that when you need to balance a budget, you have fewer and fewer options. After Prop. 13, what allowed local governments to recover was the fact that the state took [over] a much larger share of the cost of public schools. What you really had was a much smaller property tax pie. Lawmakers had to rewrite who got what slice of the pie.

Apropos of Proposition 13, people may not understand all the ramifications of it beyond the benefit to themselves.

I think you could debate how much voters understood. It gave us the two-thirds vote [requirement] for any tax increase at the state level, which I would argue was why California has had such a tough time, why we have had late budgets.

Have we been running on fumes and good credit for a while, then?

We ran on fumes and maybe not so good credit for most of the '90s. We were doing fine by '98, '99, but there were a few years mid-decade which were tough. Instead of really righting the ship, Gov. Schwarzenegger borrowed $15 billion, which we're still paying off to the tune of about a billion and a half dollars a year, and will be for a long time. And he moved around property taxes, borrowed some, shifted transportation funds.

That's the back-story, but the reason things are so horrendous today is the economy. The strong economic growth through the '80s and second half of the '90s, and whatever efficiencies were in the system, covered up the loss of revenue for a long time, and I think it's hard to convince voters that what we're seeing now, 33 years later, is the result of Prop. 13. When you have the cause and effect so separated, it's tough.

How did you get interested in numbers? Did someone give you an abacus when you were a child?

I was the girl who liked math. Also the scientific method as a way to approach public policy questions. I've always had the head of a researcher and heart of an advocate. I believe that policy debates matter, that they ought to be based on facts. And I want to help people understand how things work by making important information accessible. My mother was a reporter. [My father was in] construction. Both of them are analytic.

Are you a Californian?

I was born in Pasadena. I grew up [in] the California dream, going to the beach while the rest of the nation was snowed in. I am a 100% product of California's public education system from start to finish.

One of the things I like about our new-old governor is his [using] Carey McWilliams quotes. I'm a softie for Carey McWilliams quotes. I've gone back and pulled my "California: The Great Exception" from the shelf. It's still as true today as when he wrote it.

Where does the "heart" part come in?

Caring deeply about California, caring about people who don't have or are still struggling to achieve opportunities. My father didn't go to college -- didn't graduate from high school. I feel I am where I am because of the opportunities their generation gave me to go to the University of California, to have a world-class, affordable education that a lot of young people today don't have.

You were a biochemistry major, then in grad school, economics. Some would say you went from a difficult discipline to a tedious one. You know what they say about economics ?

The dismal profession! But I'm interested in the applications. To me it's how facts matter and how you use facts and analysis to understand the world.

You got your undergraduate degree at UC Santa Cruz, your master's degree at Berkeley. Then what?

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