Union Democrat staff

The budget crisis in Sacramento is real and reaching a fevered pitch. California is running out of time and money. State revenues have declined 27 percent from last year. Jobs, programs and state services face elimination. The state must close a $24 billion budget gap by July 1st, demonstrating to investors, creditors and rating agencies that it has a balanced budget in place.

In simple terms, the primary role of state government is to educate, medicate and incarcerate. The state's general fund budget allocates $51.7 billion or 53 percent towards education. Another $31.6 billion (33 percent) is dedicated to health care and human services. The state's prison system accounts for $10 billion and nearly 10 percent of that budget.

The governor's revised budget calls for deep cuts in education, health care, social services and corrections. He would deport 8,000 or more illegal aliens now imprisoned in California; and he would commute sentences a year early for some non-violent offenders. He is also proposing the elimination or consolidation of some state agencies and commissions that serve little purpose or duplicate existing positions.

The proposal to close 230 state parks is misguided. At a time when Californians will be spending more vacations and day trips within the state, it makes no sense to shut down these operations. Tourism is vital to our struggling California economy and it is the primary industry here in the Mother Lode. Columbia State Historic Park, Railtown 1897 and Calaveras Big Trees State Park represent our history and our heritage, and help define our special place in the Sierra foothills.

In recent years, the state has continued to undermine the core operations and viability of city and county governments with their cost shifts, program cuts and mountains of red tape. Their latest gimmick, as part of re-balancing the state budget, is to raid local government treasuries of $2 billion in property tax revenues and a similar amount in gas tax funds. They promise to re-pay these "loans" within three years. Currently, Tuolumne County only receives 26 cents for every dollar of property tax collected in the county. The state is demanding another 8 percent reducing the county's share to only 18 cents on the dollar. Total Tuolumne county property tax revenues "loaned to the state" would be $2.4 million. Another $1.1 million would be lost from Prop 42, gasoline sales tax revenue. These are critical and essential funds that should be utilized locally. It is outrageous and irresponsible for the state to plunder the reserves and cripple the carefully-managed resources of city and county governments.

In addressing this revenue shortfall, the governor should look to Washington D.C. - not Tuolumne and Calaveras counties - for borrowing money. The feds are printing money 24/7. Beyond that, the failed - and unenforceable - federal immigration policy costs the state an estimated $4 billion to $5 billion annually. As recommended by The Los Angeles Times, the Governor should demand billions in federal funding - a reimbursement - to cover those costs that illegal immigrants add to California's schools, health care, law enforcement and prison system.

While we value and appreciate the important work of all public employees, more sacrifice and common sense is required at the state level. At a time when many California businesses have cut payroll and reduced staff count by 15 percent or more - the state added 1,362 full-time employees to its payroll in the first quarter of 2009. And even as the governor proposes the elimination of 5,000 positions statewide, that number only represents a 2.5 percent reduction in jobs. By contrast, Tuolumne County government is preparing for a 12 percent reduction in staff on its upcoming budget.

Our state government is bloated, dysfunctional, unresponsive and predatory. Most Mother Lode taxpayers would agree that California must make a fundamental change in the size and scope of state government. That kind change won't be easy. As Ronald Reagan said: "No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs - once launched - never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this Earth."

State legislators must also act more responsibly - avoid needless partisanship - and restore our confidence in representative democracy. We've had enough ballot-box budgeting.