Beware the Budget Pac-Man

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One reason to worry about the deal Gov. Brown and legislative Republicans are discussing is the possiblity of a spending limit.

Spending limits have their virtues in general, but California already has so many rules on spending and taxes that it's impossible to design a limit and have any confidence you know its true effect.

Even with that uncertainty, there's one problem that's likely to be produced by a limit: the Pac-Man problem.

The spending limits typically discussed in California limit the growth of spending to population and some measures of inflation.

Fair enough.

But the trouble is that other parts of the budget also are governed by formulas. That's especially true of education spending, which grows under a formulas based on measures of personal income.

As Jean Ross of the California Budget Project points out in this smart post, personal income tends to grow much faster than the Consumer Price Index -- the main index of inflation.

Which means that education funding is likely to grow faster than the overall spending limit. What does that mean?

Education funding will eat up -- just like Pac-Man -- other parts of the budget.

Schools aren't the only potential Pac-Man. Health care costs go up faster than inflation, so they can serve as another budgetary Pac-Man.

What exactly will Pac-Man eat?

Maybe something you care about, like public safety programs or higher education. That's the trouble with spending limits in a system like California. No one knows how they'll work.

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