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State budget passes, but infrastructure flawed

California finally has a 2008-09 budget: After a record 85-day delay, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger Tuesday signed a $143 billion spending plan.

Although cause for some relief, nobody's dancing in the street over adoption of the admittedly flawed document.

The time to craft a fair, reform-minded and fiscally-responsible budget had long passed.

That goal was lost weeks ago, amid partisan posturing and bickering. As the state's budget stalemate grew to 80 days and beyond, focus was lost to ego and hopes for reform gave way to pain. State agencies, local governments and nonprofit agencies which depend on funds from Sacramento have been held hostage to politics since the budget-less fiscal year began nearly three months ago.

Disillusioned taxpayers lowered expectations, hoping only for a balanced, serviceable budget that might end a worsening crisis.

Chances of even that waned until last week, when Democratic and Republican legislators somehow mustered the constitutionally required two-thirds' majority and passed a stopgap spending plan.

But Schwarzenegger's threatened veto nearly killed that budget, and could have plunged California into a financial Twilight Zone that might have lasted weeks longer.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. Meeting last Thursday, lawmakers gave in to the governor's demands for a stronger "rainy day fund" in lean budget years, and scrapped plans to expropriate workers' withheld state taxes early to bridge a $15.2 billion deficit.

Not surprisingly, polls show, the popularity of both the governor and the Legislature plummeted during the nearly interminable budget crisis.

Lawmakers came across as intractable, partisan and unwilling to compromise.

And threats to retaliate against the Assembly and Senate by vetoing "hundreds of bills" if he didn't get his budgetary way exposed Schwarzenegger's vindictive side.

That this drama of ego and pride was played out as pain on Main Streets across the state mounted did not help.

Even here in the Mother Lode the crunch was on:

• Tuolumne and Calaveras county and city budgets, typically adopted by now, are on hold because of the state impasse. Deep cuts are expected, and, during the holidays, Tuolumne County will put nearly 800 employees on several days of unpaid furlough to save money.

• Local school and special districts are facing similar uncertainty and must anticipate cuts.

• Tuolumne County has loaned $53,000 to the Area 12 Agency on Agency, which serves thousands of seniors in a five-county area, to make up for the loss of state funds.

• Several American Indian health clinics in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties have closed or reduced services because state cash has dried up.

• Stage 2 of the East Sonora Bypass, again thanks state budget problems, could be significantly downsized.

• All state offices, from the Highway Patrol and Department of Motor Vehicles to Mother Lode state parks have operated with shoestring budgets and minimal staffs.

Take these strictly local consequences, project them statewide and make them a little worse each day, and you have an idea of what California has gone through over the past 85 days. Although the just-adopted spending plan does little to solve our almost congenital budget problems, it will allow payments to state agencies, local governments and nonprofit agencies to resume.

Mercifully, the bleeding has stopped.

But the next proposed budget is due for release by the governor's office in just 100 days, and we Californians don't have the stomach for a repeat of this year's soap opera. Instead, the governor and Legislature should move long-term budget reform front and center.

Nothing should be off the table, including elimination of California's onerous two-thirds' budget-vote requirement in favor of the simple majority adopted by all but three states across the nation. Certainly broad-based consensus is wonderful. But without a spirit of compromise, consensus yields to gridlock and to tyranny by the minority.

Also, biennial, two-year budgets — which would force lawmakers to take a long-term approach to income and spending and spare all concerned the annual adoption drama — should be considered.

That state finances will be a crucial issue in the months and years to come is clear. Our lawmakers, seemingly oblivious through much of this year's budget crisis, should now look for solutions as if their reelection depends on it.

Because it probably does.


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