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For Californians, this past week was a long time coming. In one way or another, almost everyone felt the pain after the real estate market cratered in 2008.

For state and local governments, the annual budget process became an exercise in unhappy choices, usually involving cutbacks, lost jobs and reductions in service.

On Wednesday, excited about increased state support, officials at Sonoma State University announced plans to hire 45 new faculty members. Going forward, the campus can add 270 additional full-time students, and those students can now expect the classes necessary to graduate in four years.

Imagine you're one of those students and consider what this means to your life and to your pocketbook. Now multiply that impact by the countless ways higher revenues translate into additional public services. Name your favorite — education, public safety, health care, road repairs, parks and on and on.

Nobody is proclaiming a new era of unlimited prosperity, but at least state and local agencies have a few more dollars to spend.

The $156 billion state budget bumps up spending for education, health care and human services. A new $1.47 billion Sonoma County budget provides additional monies for community policing, road repair and health care, among other things. With a new $357million budget, Santa Rosa expects to restore 23 of 200 city jobs lost since 2008 — with an emphasis on police, community development and parks.

Wiser for the experience — we can hope — state and local governments now begin the job of returning levels of service that existed prior to 2008.

Beyond these feel-good moments, however, the question remains: Has government learned from the hardships of the past six years? There will, after all, be no shortage of interest groups pressing government to return to its profligate ways.

The economy is different now. Even with new economic activity, unemployment remains higher than it was a decade ago, and more people are working in jobs that pay less.

Keep in mind, too, that not all the state's recent woes can be blamed on the recession. Even when times were good, the state Legislature couldn't set aside money for emergencies. It spent every dollar. And then some. You know about the debt and unfunded retiree benefits.

When the Board of Supervisors last week promised to spend more to repair rural roads, it was acknowledging a pattern of neglect that goes back decades. After Proposition 13, the budget category that became known as<i> deferred maintenance</i> became the path of least resistance because the consequences would not become obvious until later.

Welcome to later, and watch out for that pothole.

With a new budget, Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature put aside money for a rainy day fund, and they began cutting into the shortfall in the teachers' retirement system. It's a start, but they will need to prove over time that they can stay the course.

Here's a question: If we could start over and design a system of government for California, would it look anything like what exists today?

While the world is changing at breakneck speed, we have school districts that exist because of the time required to get from here to there on a horse. We have police and fire departments, planning departments and a host of other agencies in every town because, well, that's the way we've alway done it. It's a matter of hometown pride. Also, inertia. Change involves work, disruption, even professional risk.

During budget deliberations on Monday, the Board of Supervisors came to a discussion that might provide an instructive model. The conversation occurred as the board was approving emergency loans to two local fire districts.

Many small fire agencies face uncertain financial futures. "There is not one fire district in this county that is not in the red," explained Supervisor Mike McGuire.

He added, "we're not going to make it on bake sales."

"We have two (fire departments) on life support this year," added Board Chairman David Rabbitt. "How many will be on life support next year?"

Whether it involves consolidation, shared services or partnerships with CalFire or a nearby city fire department, McGuire said, it's time to identify the "most efficient and effective" way to deliver fire protection services.

And so the board agreed to spend $140,000 next year to explore a reorganization that might be the only way to stave off a crisis for people who depend on rural fire departments.

"Times have changed," said Rabbitt. "There are no longer those farmers who jump off their tractors and go fight the fire. It doesn't work that way anymore."

McGuire acknowledged, "it's going to be controversial at times because folks are going to have to step outside their comfort zones."

Sonoma County, it turns out, has almost as many fire agencies, 39, as it has school districts, 41.

As economic prospects improve, we wait to see if government learns to work better and smarter, while resisting the enticements of interest groups untroubled by the mistakes of the past.

<i>Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.</i>