Average taxpayers in California are probably aware that the state budget was in the news again over the weekend. But even folks who follow both Presidential politics and local issues probably couldn’t be blamed if they tune out stories about the California budget. It’s not that they don’t care. It’s just that public finance issues can be horribly confusing and difficult to follow.
In terms of timing, the process itself is easy to grasp. The annual budget year runs from July 1st to June 30th of the following year. That’s why people refer to a single budget using two years. For example, the budget currently being discussed is the 2016-2017 budget. The Constitution requires that the Governor present a budget in January and that the Legislature enact the budget by June 15th. Because state bean counters and analysts don’t have a full grasp of the economy or revenue projections in January, the Governor’s budget goes through an update, or “revision,” in May. It was this May “revise” that the Governor presented on Friday that has been in the latest news cycle.
But perhaps the most confusing aspect of the state budget is the fact that many of the numbers that are bandied about are inconsistent. Thus, an average citizen might hear on the radio that the state budget is $122 billion dollars. And yet, when they get home, they read that spending is actually $173 billion. At this point they are more apt to turn on the Giants v. Dodgers game rather than make sense of the huge disparity.
The inconsistency in these budget numbers usually is attributable to the fact that there is a big difference between “general fund” spending and total state spending which includes “special funds.” General fund revenue comes from the state income tax, sales tax, corporate tax and a handful of other sources. “Special funds” come from the gas tax and fees from regulatory programs like cap and trade funds. For average taxpayers, the worst example of “special fund” revenue consists of the illegal CalFire “fee” which slams property owners with hundreds of dollars of additional property taxes. The legality of the CalFire fee is currently being challenged in court.
When it comes to the state budget, citizen taxpayers are justified in being both confused and angry. Not a day goes by without some scandal surfacing about those who spend our tax dollars. Whether it is the Bay Bridge, which exceeded the original cost estimate by a factor of six, or California’s feckless policies that have driven up state debt so high that, were the state a private company, it would be immediately eligible for bankruptcy.
As should be expected, California has the largest state budget in the United States. But what should not be expected or tolerated is the hostility of our political leaders toward those of us who pay the bills. California has the highest income tax rate in America as well as the highest state sales tax. Our fuel costs are also the highest due to both the current gas tax and environment regulations. The result of these policies has been an accelerated exodus from the state by both businesses and individuals. It should be painfully obvious even to the Governor and left-leaning legislators that you can’t have a vibrant state budget unless you have a vibrant economy.
Finally, Governor Brown, while not officially endorsing a proposal to retain California’s sky-high income tax rates, implicitly endorsed it by noting that the state would be in a deficit situation if the measure didn’t pass in California. But this deficit projection is only attributable to higher state costs due to the foolish policies of elected leaders, not state revenues which are actually increasing faster than population and inflation.
The real cure for California’s budget woes is a combination of policies that would make California competitive in the global economy, not higher taxes and more burdensome regulations.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.