Out of Control Policy Blog

Balance Your Own California Budget

As Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the California Assembly are reportedly nearing agreement on a budget deal, the Los Angeles Times has posted a nifty web tool on its site that allows the user to take their own stab at reducing spending in education, health and human services, law enforcement and several other areas in order to close the state's $24 billion fiscal year 2010 budget deficit. (You can also raise taxes or increase debt to close the shortfall, though I would strongly advise against that.)

Policymakers would do well to steal a page from the Times here. It's good policy and practice to engage citizens in a discussion of the real world trade-offs between different tax and spending scenarios, and even simple tools like this can smooth that process and make trade-offs explicit. 

In fact, as I write in my new column, states should actually restructure their budgeting processes to generate public buy-in on how to fund first things first and last things last (if at all). To that end, they should follow the lead of Washington, Iowa and other states that have begun shifting to an outcome-based budgeting system in which policymakers and the public collaboratively rank budget priorities and fund the most important things first. The state government then goes down the list, most important items first, "buying down" with available revenues until they run out of money. This ensures that vital services are being funded before less-critical ones, and services not deemed of the highest importance are reduced or eliminated. Kitchen table budgeting works this way, and there's no reason states shouldn't do the same.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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Comments to "Balance Your Own California Budget":

c p zilliacus | July 15, 2009, 6:19pm | #

Leonard, this is a great idea, for it allows more-informed discussion about priorities, and might teach people that government spending and taxes have some connection to each other (in spite of what goes on in Washington, D.C. so much of the time). What a concept!

I commend the L.A. Times for doing this, and I commend you for sharing it with us.

c p zilliacus | July 15, 2009, 6:34pm | #

Just one gripe about the L.A. Times budget balancing tool - it should have allowed the possibility of _legalizing_ marihuana (and imposing a state tax at least as steep as that which California collects from [tobacco] cigaret smokers).

And for the record, I would love such a tax, since I have never smoked marihuana (I think the smell of marihuana burning is vile).

c p zilliacus | July 15, 2009, 6:53pm | #

More suggestions for California's budget:

(1) Abolish the California Coastal Commission and lay off its staff.

(2) Mandate privatization and competitive tendering of all mass transit services statewide in California.

(3) California should ask Congress to give the states much more freedom in the operation of rest areas along Interstates and other highways. California should be allowed to convert its rest areas into service centers, along the lines of what the Canadian province of Ontario does along its 400-series system of freeways with the so-called "Highway Service Centres." This would relieve California of the expense of running the rest areas, and provide the state with new a stream of revenue from the companies providing services at the new service areas.

ed-hardy | July 15, 2009, 11:47pm | #

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Admiral Tact | July 16, 2009, 3:56pm | #

While it's a nice concept, the implementation is a total farce clearly designed to leave readers feeling there is no choice but to raise taxes and employ gimmicks.

By their criteria even if you cut "everything" you still have a substantial deficit.



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