Craig Cornett is the budget director for Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and the financial expert for the Senate. He was part of Capitol Weekly’s list of the Top 100 Most Influential People in the Capitol in 2009.
How did you get started as a budget expert?
I went to graduate school to study public policy and took a number of classes on public financial management, program evaluation, public economics, and related topics. After I finished my master’s degree, I was hired by the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO). I spent 17 years at the LAO, and that experience cemented my interest in budgets. By the time I came to the Legislature in 2000, I was hooked.
What interests you about financial matters?
I have always thought that management of financial resources and the public sector budget are really the most fundamental expressions of public policy and priorities of a society. The budget is the place where financial resources are translated into human purposes, and the important societal tradeoffs are made between resources and demands.
What does your job consist of and who are some of the people that come to you for advice?
I advise the Senate President Pro Tem and the Senate Democratic Caucus on fiscal policy and budget matters, coordinate budget development, and work closely with the Senate Budget Committee, the Assembly, the Administration, and other state constitutional offices, on all issues related to state finance.
What question or subject are you asked about most often?
“When will the state budget be passed?” I get asked that question not only in the Capitol, but also in the community by everyone who knows what I do for a living!
What do you think bears the greatest responsibility for California’s current budget crisis?
We have had a virtual “perfect storm” of fiscal problems that led to the crisis. First, we have had an ongoing budget problem for some years—a fundamental shortfall between annual revenues and annual expenditures. Second, some of our “solutions” to past budget shortfalls have not materialized or scored the kinds of savings that we anticipated. Finally, the factor that has contributed most to the budget crisis has been the national recession and melt-down in the California economy over the past two years. Our fiscal problems might have been manageable, but were made exponentially worse by the economic situation—the loss of jobs, drops in income, high level of foreclosures, weakening of construction sector, lack of business expansion, to name a few, all of which translated into lower tax revenue receipts and higher demand for state services. To show how bad the economic situation has been, consider that last year was the first time that personal income actually fell in California since the end of World War II.
What are some of the ways to end the budget crisis?
The solution is pretty straightforward: we need to reduce our spending and bring new revenues to the state. We need to do as many things on a permanent basis, not just one-time, as possible. And we need to fundamentally look at the structure of governmental services, and “devolve” more services from the state to local governments, where the services are actually provided. This approach can save money, properly align program responsibility with program outcomes, and make government more accountable to the people.
Do you feel the economic climate is going to get worse or better?
Better. We are already seeing good, positive, signs in the California economy: we are adding jobs, real estate and construction activity is starting to pick up. Unfortunately, unlike most previous post-recession eras, it looks like this particular economic recovery will be slow and gradual.