Opinion: The clock is ticking on reform

Californians concerned about the state budget crisis should circle a date on their calendars: Friday, August 13.

As luck would have it — give or take a few days of wiggle room — that’s the deadline for the Governor and lawmakers to place a measure on the November ballot.  Superstitions aside, the date looms as a fateful day for budget reform.

Notwithstanding all the criticism being hurled at them for failing to enact a budget on time, Governor Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders deserve credit for devoting considerable time and energy to fiscal reform.

Now they should make sure that time was well spent – by bringing that work to a successful conclusion.

The Governor involved himself from the start, embracing in his final state of the state address a comprehensive fiscal reform proposal crafted by California Forward.

Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez both followed suit, and oversaw a series of thoughtful hearings on how to put California’s fiscal house in order, now and over the long term.

Their Republican counterparts, Senator Dennis Hollingsworth and Assemblyman Martin Garrick, have been active participants in these discussions as well, and several lawmakers emerged as advocates for reform, including Senator Mark Desauliner, Senator Lois Wolk and Assemblyman Michael Feuer.

At this point, two budget-related initiatives will be on the ballot. One backed by public labor unions would lower the vote threshold to pass a budget to simple majority. One backed by business would increase the number of votes needed to approve certain fees to two-thirds.

Those measures would not create the comprehensive reform California needs. What would bipartisan reform look like? California Forward’s budget reforms, based on the best practices from successful businesses and other states, include:

• Planning ahead on spending. Require the governor and lawmakers to think long-term about spending priorities and revenues before approving the budget. Take action more quickly when revenues fall unexpectedly.

 • Results and accountability. Require clear goals for every program to be spelled out and improve the legislative process for developing the budget by focusing on results and accountability.

• Performance review. Require the Legislature to examine every program at least once every 10 years, looking for ways to improve efficiency and reduce waste.

• Strengthen the state’s rainy day fund and set aside “one-time” windfalls. Create a process for identifying and using occasional, nonrecurring spikes in revenue for one-time uses, such as paying down debt or to guard against the next economic downturn.

• Pay-as-you-go. Require major new or expanded programs and tax reductions in legislation or initiatives to identify specific funding sources such as savings, cuts to other programs or tax increases.

Taken together, these reforms would prevent lawmakers from making fiscal commitments that can’t be kept – and make sure that resources are well spent to improve the lives of Californians and their communities.

While California Forward is preparing to take these reforms directly to the ballot, some lawmakers wanted the chance to craft their own plan for restoring confidence in our state and those who govern it. Should they fail, we’re prepared to resume our campaign.

Action by California’s leaders would still be preferable. And there’s still time to act, but time is running short.

Yes, California needs a state budget – but we also need the kinds of reforms that will bring us better budgets, now and for the future. That requires finalizing a spending plan, placing reforms on this year’s ballot, and creating a process to bring state, county and local stakeholders together to remake over the next year the Byzantine relationship between different levels of government.

Lawmakers have vetted the choices for budget reforms.  There is more than one good answer for some of these problems – and there is no “first choice” that gets the two-thirds votes needed to get on the ballot. In other words, they must deliberate, negotiate and compromise.

Friday the 13th – ironically – is the deadline for getting those reforms on the November ballot.  And while lawmakers may be able to push that date by a few days, reform can’t be put off any longer.

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