Ten New Year’s Resolutions for a Fiscally Responsible California

I’m a big believer in New Year’s resolutions. I have one list for home, one for work, and a separate list for my favorite hobby. In honor of the new decade, here’s another list: one aimed at setting the state on a fiscally responsible path for the year ahead.

  1. Don’t vote for any ballot measure that creates an unfunded obligation on the state budget or “locks in” more of the budget. Constitutional provisions that limit the use of certain tax revenues or impose spending requirements on the budget without providing the resources to fulfill those obligations exacerbate California’s fiscal problems. These provisions range from dedication of sales taxes collected on gasoline to transportation to the “Three Strikes” law establishing minimum sentencing requirements.
  2. Don’t vote for bonds that impose an obligation on the General Fund where there’s a good alternative. The Legislature missed a great opportunity when it placed a water bond on the ballot that will further burden the General Fund instead of asking water users to pay the cost of system improvements. State Treasurer Bill Lockyer recently reported that debt service costs will exceed 10 percent of General Fund spending in 2012-13. That’s more than the state spends on all of Higher Education or Corrections and Rehabilitation. Debt service costs have more than tripled as a share of the budget since the mid-1980s.
  3. If you vote for an unfunded bond or budget “lock in,” don’t complain about the state’s budget problems. This one should be self-explanatory. If you help create the problem, don’t be surprised when it is hard to find a solution.
  4. Don’t promise to cut taxes and balance the budget. I have the cover of an old New Yorker magazine on the wall of my office. It is a take-off of Dante’s Inferno. At the center ring of hell? Politicians that promise to cut taxes and balance the budget. It’s a good reminder that the impossible is, well, impossible.
  5. Use more facts, less rhetoric. Here at the CBP, we like to think of ourselves as being in the business of providing facts. That’s because, to paraphrase our friends at the Oregon Center for Public Policy, “facts matter.” Let’s all resolve to make 2010 the year that budget and policy debates are based on hard facts and solid, evidence-based research. And remember that the plural of anecdote is not data.
  6. Hold candidates for public office accountable for realistic solutions to California’s budget problems. If a candidate for governor proposes to layoff tens of thousands of state workers, make them tell you exactly which workers she or he thinks are expendable: college professors or prison guards? The upcoming gubernatorial campaign offers an opportunity for those who seek to lead California to initiate an honest conversation with voters about the difficult choices needed to balance the state’s budget and what Californians want and need from government to make our state one we can all be proud of.
  7. Have compassion for the less fortunate among us and those who continue to suffer from a weak economy. Double-digit unemployment rates and the prospects of a jobless recovery will increase demands on state and local safety nets. Recent budget cuts have asked families and service providers to do more with fewer resources in the face of rising demands. Budgets are about values and choices and we remain convinced that compassion is a value Californians share.
  8. Get involved. Lobby your legislators or the Governor. Better yet, do it as part of the PTA, your union or professional association, or a local community organization. Don’t have one? Start one. Any elected official worth her or his salt does listen and your opinions do matter. Remember that you are the expert for your community.
  9. Vote. My guess is that Budget Bites readers are high-propensity voters. Take the next step. Encourage your family, friends, co-workers, and clients to register and vote. This year, Californians will elect a new governor, vote for 80 assemblymembers, 20 state senators, Congressional representatives, and weigh in on countless ballot measures. My motto: if you don’t vote, you don’t get to complain if things don’t turn out how you’d hope.
  10. Contribute. Hopefully, to support the work of the California Budget Project, but also to the shelter, clinic, food bank, or school of your choice. Tough economic times make for tough fundraising times. Many nonprofits that receive state or local government funds have experienced deep cuts in funding while demand for their services soars. Even a small donation, if that’s all you can afford, tells staff and volunteers that you value the work that they do.

And with that, best wishes for a happy new year. We know that it will be tough. And it probably won’t be pretty.

On behalf of all of us here at the CBP, we look forward to working with you to build a better future for Californians.

— Jean Ross

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