Perata pitches budget reform panel

perata.jpgState Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, sent a letter today to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposing the creation of a bipartisan panel to study the state budget’s structural problems and how to fix them over the long term.

Perata contends the state’s budget is “fatally broken,” controlled by conflicting ballot-box mandates, dedicated funding streams and other constraints that limit what lawmakers can do, the letter said; he says this summer’s budget impasse is the latest example of a flawed and unbalanced fiscal structure.

Long story short: The state still generally spends more than it takes in, and efforts to close that gap are usally predicated on very volatile revenue streams while Republicans steadfastly oppose any adjustments to income taxes for the wealthy or property taxes for commercial land owners.

Perata proposes convening a Budget Revision Panel consisting of the state Senate’s and Assembly’s four leaders, the Governor’s director of finance and the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst.

Is this a meaningful desire for real reform, or just more of the Sacramento kabuki which has precluded real change for years? Time will tell. But at least someone apparently is trying to have the conversation.

Read the text of the letter, after the jump:

August 22, 2007

The Honorable Arnold Schwarzenegger
State of California
State Capitol, First Floor
Sacramento, CA 95814

Dear Governor:

This year’s budget difficulties reflect the now permanent crisis we find ourselves in. There is no debate. The state budget is fatally broken. We can no longer limp along from year to year. It’s time to fix the problem. In a phrase: We must decide the core responsibilities of state government; to wit, what services we must provide, what we can afford and where we get the money.

The problem has many causes. Unfortunately “overspending” has become political rhetoric for willfully spending more than we should; of profligate politicians unable to say no. Curiously, the word itself assumes that the governor and legislature are in control of what we spend – or how we raise and direct revenue. We are not. And we haven’t been for decades.

At the core is something unique to California: a state constitution plagued with conflicting ballot-box mandates and constraints dictating when and how much to spend, and from where. The result is a series of lockboxes and dedicated funding streams, precluding any flexibility for the state’s changing needs or revenues. Similarly, there is little discretion to make budget adjustments regardless of often substantial annual cost increases beyond our control: fast-rising energy and health care costs, chronically under-funded congressional mandates, federal court corrections mandates and unprecedented shifts in population age and demographics, just to mention the more recent. In some cases, “autopilot spending” has eclipsed funding for programs of greater priority and more pressing need.

Add a legislature that lacks experience and historical perspective – and we have a state budget in near-collapse.

We have finally reached the end of the line. Today, the past is no longer prologue to the future. The future is here, and it requires strong leadership to make the tough decisions we’ve ignored for decades. Inaction brought us here. If we don’t seize the initiative now, the same competing special interests who, in the absence of our leadership, shaped the quagmire in which we currently find ourselves, will lead us into another.

Therefore, I propose that we convene a budget revision panel that consists of the four legislative leaders, the governor’s director of finance and the legislative analyst. The panel’s objective shall be to propose changes necessary to align the state budget with contemporary fiscal and political realities, and the expectations of those we serve.

In doing so, I acknowledge that nothing can be exempt from consideration, and that we must make recommendations timely enough to balance next year’s state budget. While the problem cannot be solved in a single budget, the panel must produce a multi-year plan to restore fiscal solvency to the state. I ask your unqualified commitment to engage actively and fully with us. Thank you for your consideration.



Cc: The Honorable Fabian Nuñez, Speaker of the Assembly
The Honorable Dick Ackerman, Minority Leader of the Senate
The Honorable Mike Villines, Minority Leader of the Assembly
Elizabeth Hill, Legislative Analyst

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.