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A Big 5 Power Grab: A bad way to make budgets.

Lost amid all the concern about the budget crisis facing California is a fundamental and dangerous shift in the way the state budget is created.

Here’s how the process is supposed to work:
• Budget subcommittees in the State Senate and Assembly hold hearings and develop proposed budgets.
• Senators and Assembly members vote up or down on their chamber’s budget proposal.
• Any differences between the Senate and Assembly versions of the budget are reconciled by a Budget Conference Committee which includes members of both chambers.
• If the Senate and the Assembly cannot reach agreement on certain provisions of the proposed budget, the Republican and Democratic leaders from each chamber meet with the governor to reconcile these unresolved issues. This group is referred to as the “Big 5.”

This process allows all members of the Legislature, as well as key stakeholders and policy experts, to participate. It is designed to insure that all viewpoints and all relevant facts are considered when constructing the budget.

Unfortunately, instead of its traditional role as an arbiter, the Big 5 is now being used to circumvent the budget process and exclude input from other legislators and knowledgeable stakeholders.

For example, the final agreement in July on the 2009-2010 budget–considered to be one of the most regressive in our state’s history–was decided in negotiations among the Big 5 and given to the Legislature with an ultimatum of “take it or leave it.”  

Despite the fact that this budget affected every California citizen and involved tens of billions of dollars in spending, there was no opportunity for fact-checking or for real discussion or debate, in the Senate or Assembly. There was no opportunity to consider various ways to raise revenue as an alternative to draconian cuts in safety net programs.

Is it any wonder that the 2009-2010 budget has been devastating for millions of our most vulnerable citizens? Is it any wonder that many of the revenue and cost-saving assumptions in this budget have not been realized because they are fundamentally flawed? Is it any wonder that many of the provisions of this budget have been challenged in court?

Public perception of the governor and the legislature will not improve until the people of California see budgets adopted that truly meet their needs, not budgets that are the product of ideological gamesmanship and are dictated from the top.

This year, we must ask ourselves a fundamental question: Are government programs doing what they were created to do? If not, we must have the courage to admit that and look for alternatives. If so, then we must have the courage to find the necessary revenue to pay for them.

Now is not the time for party ideology. Now is the time for honest dialogue and cooperation to help solve our state’s problems.

When we say shared sacrifice, we should mean that everyone–businesses as well as individuals–must pay their fair share. It should not mean that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It should not mean that any proposal to raise needed revenue is dismissed out of hand. It should not mean, for example, that we propose throwing hundreds of thousands of homecare providers out of work at the same time we’re urging the creation of more jobs.  

In this critical year for our state, we cannot afford another policy disaster like last year’s budget. It is time to stop the Big 5 power grab and let our elected representatives in Sacramento do their jobs.  It is time for our legislators to show courage and stand up to the leaders in their party and the governor, not just rubber-stamp the budget and whine that they “had no choice.” It is time for them to do what’s right for ALL the people of our state.

We are pleased that one of the newest members of the Big 5, Speaker-Elect John Perez has promised that he will respect the budget process and return the Big 5 to its traditional role.  We urge the governor and the other leaders of the Senate and Assembly to do the same.

Input is needed from all legislators and knowledgeable stakeholders this year more than ever before. California’s fiscal problems will not be solved this year, but we can and should start addressing these problems the correct way.


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