You — Yes, You — Can Balance the California Budget

Jerry Brown, why is it so hard? Democrats, why can't you do it? Republicans, what's so special about fiscal discipline?

I just balanced the budget, all by myself, right now. Heck, I balanced it with a $6 billion surplus.

Of course, I didn't have to negotiate with anyone or win any votes. All I had to do was take the California Budget Challenge, put together by the nonprofit Next 10.

The challenge tool was just updated to allow you to go on-line and face all the same budget choices that confront the state right now.

You learn a lot about the tradeoffs in cutting or expanding a particular program, raising or cutting a different tax.

I balanced the budget by protecting education, while cutting social services and raising taxes. The budget challenge didn't give me a choice, but I would have put my entire surplus in a rainy day fund that couldn't be touched for at least two years. The state should build up a rainy day fund of 20 percent in advance of the next recession.

But the real lesson of the budget challenge is that California's budget problems aren't a matter of math. If a would-be dictator on the Internet -- like me -- is left alone to make choices, the budget can be balanced. The trouble is that California's real budget system doesn't work like that. It forces us to make broad consensus choices -- and get agreement from two-thirds supermajorities on matters of taxes, fees and education spending, just to name three things -- before we can make decisions. Either that, or expensive ballot measures to enact things we can't agree upon. And even then, any move toward balance is an illusion, as the system begins to ratchet up the deficit all by itself.

But it's fun to imagine yourself -- or anyone really -- driving the budget wheel. You can try the challenge here.

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