California once again starts a new year in a budget hole, one the state has been trying to climb out of primarily with the help of a single tool: spending cuts.
The year started with a $1 billion budget cut for higher education, K-12 busing and services for the disabled. These were automatic reductions triggered by lower-than-anticipated revenues for the current fiscal year.
The budget deficit for the coming fiscal year is expected to be $9.2 billion, far less than last year's $26 billion hole but significant nonetheless. It amounts to about 10 percent of the state's total general fund revenue.
Gov. Jerry Brown pulled no punches Thursday in releasing his plan for bridging that gap — a plan that has triggered criticism from across the political spectrum, which suggests he is probably on target.
Brown has proposed bridging most of the deficit through a half-cent sales tax as well as a tax on Californians with incomes of more than $250,000. The rest, $4.2 billion, would come from cuts to the state's welfare-to-work program, Medi-Cal and child care services.
Among other things, the cuts include eliminating the Healthy Families program, which has made great strides in providing low-cost insurance for children who were previously uninsured. The program currently serves 900,000 children.
There's no question that, on top of the cuts that have already been made, these represent painful reductions. But it does not represent the worst of it.
The half-cent sales tax would go before state voters in November, and, if approved, would expire in 2017. If it is not approved, however, the state's problem would get far worse. Under the governor's plan, this would mean a $4.8 billion cut in funding for K-12 education, the equivalent of taking out three weeks of instructional days.
In addition, $200 million would be taken from the University of California and California State University systems, $125 million would be cut from courts and $15 million would be cut from forest fire protection.
"You know that old cliche about the pendulum swinging too far? I think it needs to swing back," said state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, in criticizing the governor's package last week.
Unfortunately, there are few alternatives to controlling this pendulum. Although polls show Californians are willing to raise taxes to support education, a half-cents sales tax on the November ballot won't happen without a fight.
The governor's numbers are already being questioned by Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor who contends that the tax increases would bring in $2.1 billion less than Brown has estimated. If so, this will require either deeper cuts or more revenue increases.
As we've stated before, we believe the only way out of these chronic structural deficits is through a combination of spending reductions and tax increases, in addition to budgetary reform measures that will protect the state from these wild pendulum swings.
California cannot resolve its problems through cuts alone. The staggering prospects of an additional $4.8 billion reduction to elementary, middle and high schools next year should remove all doubt about that.
Brown's plan offers the best hope of getting out of this pit.