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Spend Proposition 30 dollars wisely, or else

December 17, 2012|By Jon Healey
  • California Gov. Jerry Brown lobbied successfully for the passage of Proposition 30.
California Gov. Jerry Brown lobbied successfully for the passage of Proposition… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)

My colleague Chris Megerian reported Monday about an array of budget cuts that lobbyists in Sacramento are eager to undo in these post-Proposition 30 times. It's worth reading just to get a reminder of how much lawmakers cut in recent years before persuading voters to raise taxes. But it's also an indication of just how hard it will be for Gov. Jerry Brown to finish the budget repair job he started after taking office two years ago.

Proposition 30 is expected to bring in roughly $6 billion for five years, and lesser sums for two years after that, by raising income taxes on the state's highest earners for seven years and the sales tax for four years. It doesn't completely close the state's budget gap, however; the shortfall is expected to be close to $2 billion next year. That's far better than in the last few years, but it's still a shortfall, not a surplus.

It's worth remembering that Brown characterized the multiple billions of dollars in cuts he pushed through the Legislature as structural changes, not one-time fixes. In other words, the point was to make permanent changes in programs to nurse the state back to fiscal health.

So the first thing lawmakers should do is accept the new normal in spending. Eventually the state's economy will rebound and unemployment will shrink to customary levels, but Proposition 30 didn't hasten the arrival of that day.

That's not to say the state shouldn't restore dental benefits for poor families on Medi-Cal or put more dollars back into safety net programs that save money over the long run, such as in-home supportive services. Many of the cuts made in recent years have been in the penny-wise pound-foolish category, and those should be first in line to be reversed.

But lawmakers should wait for revenue to actually outpace existing obligations before they take on new ones. That includes reversing the cuts that helped put the state budget on a path to sustainable balance by the time Proposition 30's tax increases expire. Otherwise, they'll just punch a new hole in the fiscal ship, and voters may be less willing to bail them out next time.

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Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey

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