The governor portrayed himself as a skinflint and wisely promised prudence after California taxpayers flooded state coffers with billions of dollars in unexpected revenue.
Then the demands came. From the left, there were pleas to spend more on social programs. The powerful public school lobby demanded more money for schools. The right wanted baubles, too, including tax cuts. The governor’s resolve weakened.
That was 13 years ago, and the governor was Gray Davis. This governor, Jerry Brown, appears to be dead set against spending every nickel and dime that arrives, or so Californians should hope.
“Anybody who thinks there’s spare change around here has not read the budget,” Brown said two weeks ago.
Brown should stick to that view, as budget negotiations enter their final weeks before the Legislature’s mid-June deadline for approving the budget and Brown’s July 1 deadline for having the spending plan in place.
For too long, California’s budget was a study in the ridiculous. Revenue would flood into coffers in one year, only to fall painfully short in the following years, as Davis discovered two years after the $12 billion so-called surplus when he faced a $12 billion shortfall.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who claimed he would solve the mess, made matters worse by relying on debt to help finance a $4 billion-a-year car tax cut, a reckless move for which taxpayers still are on the hook.
In the coming days and weeks, pressure will be intense on Brown and legislators. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg wants an additional $200 million-plus for mental health care and $113 million to provide dental care for poor people.
Speaker John A. Perez offers a well-intentioned but muddled idea — again seeking $173 million for what he calls “middle class scholarships” to help defray the cost of higher education for a select swath of students. He ought to impose on public universities to reduce costs and tuition, which would benefit all students.
But California will end up back in the morass from which it’s now emerging if it spends $200 million plus $113 million plus $173 million plus millions more for all the other good programs.
The Legislative Analyst’s Office has said tax revenue will be $3.2 billion above Brown’s estimate. Perhaps Brown low-balled the revenue estimate for 2013.
But the European economy remains in doldrums; the always tense Middle East could worsen; Congress is dysfunctional; and employers hesitate to invest in new hiring.
There will be give and take, as Brown and legislators haggle over the budget. That’s the way of politics. But legislators need to show restraint.
Brown should keep his blue pencil close by.