Book Review: California in the Balance
Not many primers on California budget history, processes and strategies begin with a Foreward whose third sentence notes that in earlier times “priests scrutinized the entrails of recently deceased birds and mammals to inspire their analysis.”
They are also the words of State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, himself not a common feature of primers on California budget history, processes and strategies.
Why? Because California in the Balance — Why Budgets Matter by long-time Capitol staffer and budgeteer John Decker, is, as best can be told, the first primer on California budget history, processes and strategies.
High time given that the budget is the most significant public policy utterance made by the Legislature and the governor each year.
At a minimum, legislative leaders should buy a copy for themselves and the chairs and vice-chairs of each house’s budget committees. As a pal at the University of California at Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, the book’s publisher, quipped: “The sex scenes are awesome.”
There is a fair amount of basking in the warm afterglow in the book’s 140 pages, however. As anyone who knows Decker should expect. Decker, both in the Capitol and now in his work with Lockyer, is an advocate of collaboration, not conflict; solutions, not sniping.
A telling story involves Decker and former GOP Senate Leader Ken Maddy of Fresno who was considering hiring him. Decker confessed that his political views were very different from Maddy’s. “You do the policy, I’ll handle the politics,” Maddy said.
He favors the two-thirds vote requirement for a budget as a mechanism encouraging compromise and cooperation. He advocates truncating the budget sub-committee process because the agenda reflects that of the majority party and its conclusions are expressed in party-line votes.
“As a result, the subcommittee work does not lead to furthering the necessary collaboration. It barely furthers the development of the budget.”
Among some of the more obvious Geez-Why-Aren’t-We-Doing-This-Already? suggestions is moving the start of California’s fiscal year to October 1. First, that’s when the federal fiscal year begins, from whence many blessings flow, and, second, it lengthens the window for lawmakers to develop a spending plan from six weeks after the governor’s May Revision to 24 weeks.
An optimist, Decker believes more time tio deliberate will lead to a this will lead to a better work product.
For someone who believes, as Harry Truman did, that “the only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know,” it’s enjoyable to read of the fiscal acumen and legislative legerdemain of former Gov. Pete Wilson and former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, particularly Brown and his staff’s creativity in finding the $100 million in revenue needed to close out 1993 budget negotiations.
In turn, its instructive to see their budgetary choices stacked on those of their predecessors and those of their successors atop theirs, creating what Lockyer calls “an alternate universe free from the weight of a logic or accountability we mere mortals can fathom.”
Lockyer, as is his wont, says it more plainly than Decker but the two make the same point: “Budget choices reflect expediency instead of long-term good sense.”
Decker’s legislative background is most apparent in the final chapter of the book, which offers some suggestions on improving the budget process, the most significant of which are aimed at lawmakers.
Decker notes rightly that the budget agenda is largely defind by the governor who presents a spending plan in January, which the Legislature reacts to for the next six months.
Because the governor is required to present a balanced budget his January proposal based on October revenue estimates, has become somewhat of a joke. It’s balanced but with draconian cuts in health and welfare or some other area that everyone from the governor down knows won’t be approved.
Decker suggests lawmakers set some spending priorities of their own. They receive a report from the Legislative Analyst in November about the state’s fiscal condition, Decker notes. He suggests conveying those priorities to the governor before he submits his spending plan, to foster collaboration.
And when a budget is enacted, Decker rightly notes, very little analysis is paid to it. The governor’s January proposal is the subject of an exhaustive review by the Legislative Analyst. A similar dissection of the finished product should also occur.
Doing so, Decker argues, would lead to better informed decisions about subsequent spending plans.
Sadly, ilike moving the start of the fiscal year to October 1, the idea might be a little too rational and sensible to catch on.
Lockyer and Decker are signing copies of the book October 15 at Chops, a Sacramento eatery on 11th St., across L St. from the Capitol.
Filed under: Budget and Economy
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