What's Worse Than No Budget Deal? A Budget Deal, Maybe

Each day, the newspapers in California ask: how close are we to a budget deal? The question is always whether we'll get such a deal. No one asks whether a deal is, well, a good deal.

The failure to get a budget deal is frustrating. But recent budget deals have been worse than frustrating. They've been dangerous.

The current situation -- with a governor pushing desperately for a handful of Republican votes to gain a compromise -- is reminiscent of the last two, big budget deals that involved the possibility of votes on accompanying ballot measures. Both of those deals have proven to be, by general consensus, failures. Though, this being California, everyone wants a big compromise deal like those.

The first of these failed deals came in late 2003, in the weeks after Gov. Schwarzenegger left office. Schwarzenegger said he wanted to balance the budget, using $15 billion in general borrowing to do so. Democrats were OK with the borrowing. But Republicans wouldn't go along unless there was "budget reform" attached -- the same demand the GOP is making now. The budget reform in 2003 turned out to be a constitutional amendment that required balanced budgets in California. That requirement was approved by voters in the spring of 2004, along with the borrowing. But the reform has meant very little. As the current situation demonstrates, passing a measure that requires a balanced budget isn't enough to balance the budget.

The second big failed deal came in 2009, when Schwarzenegger and the legislature agreed on temporary tax increases -- the same increases Brown is pursuing now -- as part of a package of a half-dozen ballot measures that had to go to voters for approval. The voters said no to the five most substantive of those measures -- all of which were designed to limit budget deficits. In effect, they ended the temporary taxes two years early -- which is why Brown is backing demanding an extension of the same taxes.

Despite these two big deals, the budget remains a mess. And even if Brown and the legislature reach another big deal, the budget almost certainly will remain a mess. One budget deal can't solve a budget problem as complicated and difficult as California's. The entire budget process has to be redesigned from top to bottom. Such a redesign is exactly the kind of thing that can't be produced by one big budget deal.

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