The Case for Legislative Inaction

Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters offers the very essence of conventional wisdom in this column: the legislature needs to "man up" and cut the budget, instead of waiting for revenues to materialize.

Such statements have become inarguable. There's nothing easier than bashing the legislature. And yes, revenues are coming in way behind projections -- leaving the state with big projected shortfalls. And yes, the sooner you make budget cuts, the more you can save -- at least on the books.

That all sounds like common sense. But it's also wrong.

Common sense, you must always remember, has nothing to do with California's budget process. That process is governed by a mess of formulas and constitutional provisions and initiatives and court rulings that, whatever their individual logic, make no sense together.

Which is why legislative inaction is likely to be just as good -- or bad -- as action.

Simply cutting the budget -- or getting in more revenues -- doesn't mean that the budget is that much closer to balance. Because cuts and revenues trigger other changes in budget formulas.

For legislative Democrats, who are in the majority, making cuts makes little sense. The impact on the budget is uncertain. But the impact of real cuts on real constituents is certain. And the state has been cutting spending for years -- it's now at 40 year lows. There's nothing particularly "manly," no matter what Walters says, about cuts now.

More important, California legislators no longer have the tools to manage the budget in any kind of effective way.

So asking them to act is like asking your janitor to act when there's a big mess on the floor--at a moment when you know there's about to be a big mess. Sure, it might be nice if they cleaned it up, but what's the rush-- the mess will keep getting bigger.

All that said, the legislature should get moving -- but not on particular cuts or revenues. It should take this time and lead the way in redesigning the budget system, or appointing and empowering the kind of constitutional revision commission that could do a redesign.

If we had a system that worked on common sense principles, then it'd be more than fair to bash the legislature for inaction.

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