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Friday, March 22 , 2019, 10:18 pm | Fair 56º


Bill Cirone: California Is Broke; Let’s Help Fix It

Governor's proposal to cut programs and extend taxes is painful but necessary

California is broke and its financial structure is broken. We need to help fix it.

It can be argued that we got to this point through good intentions — hundreds, perhaps thousands of worthy programs and projects that truly deserved support from state government. These are programs that helped the least among us, the middle class and even the very wealthy through a tax structure designed to spur growth.

The problem is that for years we financed these very worthy programs through smoke and mirrors. There simply isn’t enough money to pay for them, and hasn’t been for years. Democrats in Sacramento worked furiously to oppose any cuts in the safety net or services provided by government. Republicans in power worked furiously to oppose any revenue increases. No one compromised. Expenditures greatly exceeded revenues, and bookkeeping tricks kept everything going.

No more. The state is facing a $25 billion shortfall, and all the accounting tricks and gimmicks have been used up. It’s time to pay the piper.

From my perspective, the language now coming out of Sacramento is extremely encouraging. For the first time, we are hearing that the problem should be addressed not from one ideological perspective, but from what seems to be a reasonable blending of both: Address half the deficit through program cuts and half through extending for another five years the extra taxes already on the books.

No one claims that any of this is desirable. Cutting taxes could spur further growth, and cutting programs would cause true pain and suffering among those least able to cope with it. But the pain is equally shared by everyone, including those of both ideologies. There simply isn’t enough left to cut to make up the enormous amount of money needed to erase the deficit, and it is untenable to bridge the divide through added taxes, above those that already exist, at a time when the economy is fragile and growth needs to be spurred.

For years we’ve been saying we need a long-term solution that meets important criteria: fixing the structural deficit, combining cuts with enhanced revenue, protecting K-12 education in recognition that the institution has so far taken the lion’s share of cuts, and providing more local control.

As I read it, Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal, coming out of the gate, meets all these goals.

There are very few winners in this proposal, and an enormous number of “losers” in terms of vital funding, to be sure. Programs and institutions targeted for cutting are many that are closest to my heart, and I have been an outspoken champion of these programs for years. If every group starts picking apart the pieces we don’t like, however, it will be a sure formula for failure.

Recognizing the difficulty of the cuts he has proposed, the governor has invited alternative solutions to close the gap without changing the basic structure of the equation. First Five and other groups are in the process of making proposals that are being considered by the Legislature.

We don’t know for sure what will happen if the governor’s proposals pass. But this is the important point: We do know what would happen if the package doesn’t pass. The deficit would have to be addressed solely through cuts. Instead of suffering serious reductions, these programs would be decimated or wiped out all together. I do not believe we should be willing to take that risk.

Early polls show popular support for the governor’s proposals. The public “gets” it. They know that the easy steps have been taken and that the situation is dire. If asked about specific programs designed for cutting, most people oppose the cuts; but they understand the bigger picture and the need for drastic measures. They also seem to understand the alternatives — far deeper program cuts, or elimination.

In the bigger scheme of things, we must all take a deep breath and do what is right. To me, the governor’s proposals appear to be what’s needed.

The next critical step is for the Legislature to trust the public and put the tax extension proposals on the ballot, allowing the citizens of California to decide. Too much is at stake to do anything less.

I support the proposal wholeheartedly at this time, in its current form, despite all the hardships it creates. As adults, let’s do what’s necessary and then rebuild.

— Bill Cirone is Santa Barbara County’s superintendent of schools.

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