Budget Battle Ain’t Over ’til It’s Over

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The state Legislature has passed a budget, Controller John Chiang has given his blessing, and Governor Jerry Brown has signed off.

Mission finally accomplished, right? Not necessarily.

Now it's time to see what the courts do.

Over the next few months, there will be a flurry of law suits declaring that the legislature and governor acted unconstitutionally or illegally in their budget actions and justifications.

Each time that the courts agree, the precariously balanced budget will tilt to the negative. It happens every year, which is why a budget that seems to be balanced in July often is out of whack by the following winter or spring.

The first shot has already been taken. The mayors from several cities with redevelopment agencies have filed suit that the state can not deny agencies their $1.7 billion generated annually.

They say that Proposition 22 enacted by the voters last year specifically prevents state government from raiding local treasuries. If the mayors and their agencies prevail, suddenly the budget will be out of balance by $1.7 billion.


There will be other suits on everything from shutting down parks that are supported with federal funds to the constitutionality of reducing mental health funding to withholding previously promised funds from public schools.

Every time the plaintiffs prevail, the size of the gap will balloon until we find ourselves several billions in the hole again as we approach the end of the fiscal year.

How can this happen? California's budget does not exist in a vacuum. Many financial commitments are determined by previous laws or court decisions; others must be made in concert with the design of federal law.

Last year, for example, federal courts forced the state to restore hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to health and human services and several hundred million dollars more for state prison spending. The money can add up fast.

All this reminds us of the adage proffered by that wise philosopher-and-sometimes-baseball player Yogi Berra who once said,"It 'aint over 'til it's over."

With respect to the new state budget, it won't be over until the responses to the last law suit are handed down. And with respect to a balanced budget, that could be strike three.

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