June 4: What's Jen Clicking on Between Newscasts?

Anyone critical of California lawmakers trying to balance the state's budget should try it themselves. And now, they can!

If you use financial software to manage your money, you'll love this little exercise, and it's something I think everyone in California should do.

Ever notice how, when you enter all your financial data into something like Quicken, or an online service like Mint.com, you get a really good idea of how stupid you've been about your money?  Once you see it all laid out there in pie charts and graphs, it's pretty easy to see how to go about saving here or cutting there in order to make those dreaded red bars turn to green ones.  Maybe a real Starbucks coffee is a necessity to you, or maybe brewing it at home will save you enough to make it worth while.  Little things here and there really add up, again, when you're looking at pulling that red-below-the-line bar up to the good, green kind that points upward.

After the special election last month, it's clear that we, as Californians, need to look at our priorities as a state in kind of the same way.  You can't have it all, not at home, and not in the public domain.  But, California voters don't want spending caps or budget cuts or tax hikes, according to voters who came to the polls last month.  Can we really blame the governor and the legislature if this is the type of mandate we're handing them?

Well, the governor said "the day of reckoning is here."  A Time Magazine story out today says:

Since the May 19 special election, the governor has proposed cutting public schools' funding by $5.2 billion, closing 220 state parks, firing 5,000 state workers, selling state property and, most dramatically, eliminating the safety net of subsistence economic support and health care to 1 million children living in poverty.

Acknowledging the pain these cuts will cause to million of state residents, Schwarzenegger declared, "We are not Washington. We cannot print money. We cannot run up trillion-dollar deficits. We can only spend what we have. That is the harsh but simple reality."

So what would you cut? And how would you do it? It's such an unweildy task, but the Los Angeles Times has come up with this really cool interactive Budget tool that gives the average Joe a chance to have a whack at it.  And, faced with columns of decisions that automatically calculate costs and savings, you quickly understand the pressure  Sacramento is under.  Here's a look:

You just have to kind of start in on one side, with a column of departments, and decide what to cut or which taxes to add and watch the red bar roll closer toward zero.

As you hover over each category indecisively, a little window will pop up and tell you what the ramifications are and how big of an outcry you can expect over it. 

Take this example of cutting state workers' pensions.  Would the very likely chance that it's illegal and would end up in court make it cost more than it's worth?


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There are some tough decisions to be made, and the comments on this feature from people who have played with it a little bit are pretty interesting.

Take this one from "Richard N.:"

Some very interesting propositions here. I don't live in CA or even in the US. I live in a 3rd world country. And we would never ever dream of overspending(the budget). California sounds like a voters Utopia. Every major decision to be made by everyone(what does the state government do exactly?

"Franklin" offers a very thoughtful set of proposals but before making any major decisions on these specific categories, he needs to see more detail on the breakdown of the General Fund budget. He also says:

I suspect that too little of our revenues come from property tax anymore and too much come from income taxes and sales tax. That would suggest a need to reform Prop 13 to require a more realistic levy of property taxes. (And I say this as a property owner that would pay more real estate taxes.)

And maybe the most ominous of all, and something that no one really wants to talk about because it's scary and may be pretty true, "Jeremy" writes, simply, "California is unique in how representatives vote on taxes and budgets. Until a new constitution is drafted for California, these problems will continue to exist."

Talk about going back to the drawing board.  Give it a whirl, it's an interesting study, and you will learn a little something about yourself as you're forced to make decisions on the big picture and balance each program or tax against another. 

"People come up to me all the time, pleading, 'Governor, please don't cut my program,' " Governor Schwarzenegger said Tuesday when he appeared before the legislature; "I see the pain in their eyes and hear the fear in their voice. It's an awful feeling. But we have no choice."

I feel the Governor's pain.  I'd write more, but I'm busy wrestling between funding K-12 or prison rehab programs. 

See what else Jen is clicking on...

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