This Year's Budget Is Done

You can spare yourself the pain of following this week's budget drama. This thing is over.

Yes, you'll probably hear about differences between Gov. Jerry Brown and the legislature over $2 billion in cuts that the governor wants but that lawmakers don't want to make. You'll hear about how those cuts could hurt certain poor people (that's true) and about $1 billion in reserves that might be taken in a compromise (that reserve is as good as gone).

But the reality is: this is minor stuff. $2 billion is less than 2 percent of the state's overall budget of some $140 billion, when you count the general fund ($90 billion) and all the state's special funds. This isn't a fight over much at all.

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Indeed, the legislature's balking at these last $2 billion in cuts demonstrates not that they're challenging Brown -- but that they're following his lead nearly completely.

The rest of the budget that will be adopted mostly follows Brown's own plan, with cuts and gimmicks and triggers designed to spook voters into adopting his temporary-tax-raising ballot initiative in the fall.

The real goal of Democrats this week will be to make it look like they are making a bunch of "hard choices" in the budget so that it's easier for them to make the case for revenues to voters in November.

I'd expect to see lawmakers howl and scream about cuts as much possible -- and maybe act bitterly disappointed in the cuts when the deal is formally done and the budget passed Friday, the constitutional deadline for passing a budget.

The lack of authentic rancor may seem like an improvement over past years. But the lack of rancor is also a missed opportunity. If there were legislators serious about fixing the budget system itself, this would be a moment to raise a real stink, withhold their votes, and focus public attention on the fact that this budget is broken in any number of ways.

Of course, any legislator who did that would pay a political price -- since legislative leaders have in recent years frozen out lawmakers who dared to challenge them on the budget and other major legislation. (And yes, the political price pales in comparison to the human impact of the constant cuts on college students and disabled people and seniors).

So if you do want to pay attention this week, you should judge the budget endgame as though it were a play or a movie: it's all about the acting. 

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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