Dan Rabovsky retired in August as principle consultant with the Assembly Budget Committee. He started his 30 year career working on budgets in the Legislative Analyst’s Office.
You joined the LAO shortly after Prop 13.
There was a massive amount of uncertainty. I remember that summer if ’79, when I joined the LAO, we went through a lot of drills in terms of what was happening in local governments. Later on, it put an ongoing physical strain on the state, but probably even more significant were the governance changes, which moved a lot of the physical decision making to the local level.
It’s an ongoing problem. The Bee carried the story of the redevelopment agency suing the state on one of the budget solutions that we did. We got sued the other year by them too. The budget transportation folks have sued, we’ve got other local entities suing us. We have continual disputes over how to allocate the money.
The biggest problem was the fact that it moved fiscal decision making further from the people. School boards used to be the tax levying entities, and therefore had a lot of local interests who didn’t have kids in school or weren’t teachers. Now they don’t set a property tax rate every year like the old days. I think that’s moved a lot of the local political interest away from them and more towards those who are most directly involved, the teachers and the parents.
Do you think term limits have made it harder to pass good budgets?
There’s definitely been a change. I remember the subcommittee process before term limits, we would have hearings in sub committees that would go on for a number of hours, and some still do, but there was real discussion among the members of subcommittee about the various proposals and issues before them. Republicans took an active role in those discussions. It wasn’t one party doing all the talking, it was a lot of back and forth. Members weren’t always having to run off to a fundraiser. Members had time to learn more about the subject matter. They had the ability to take a longer perspective because they expected to remain in office longer.
We’ve seen a lot of new blood come into the Legislature and there’s some good aspects of this. New people have fresh ideas, sometimes more energy, certainly in the old age you had people that got burned out. But you also had a lot of very experienced, dedicated people, and we’ve lost a lot of that because of term limits. Because the members don’t have a chance to get as much experience, they have to rely more on staff. It’s also shifted some more power to the governor as well, the executive branch. The process also has become less deliberative.
What are some other big changes that have affected the budgeting process?
Prop. 98, the transportation propositions, Proposition 1A, a lot of propositions have put constrains around the budget process that we, as staff, have to find ways around. That’s why we end up with these lawsuits, these battles between local governments and other interests and the legislator and the governor over budget solutions. It’s been a messy process because of the initiatives.
The other thing is simply the increase in partisanship. In the old days it wasn’t infrequent to get over 60 votes for the budget in the Assembly. Some of that is term limits, some of that is the way district lines are drawn. But you can’t blame it all on term limits, because I think you see the same trends around the country, particularly in congress, with increased polarization. They don’t have term limits.
What do you consider your major accomplishments?
I wish I could say getting the budget in really good shape, but I can’t. That’s a disappointment, that the budget is in such bad shape and it’s on a downward trend. I’ve been involved in a few areas of financial management that have managed to keep the state out of cash disaster back in the early 90’s. I helped put together the plan for economic recovery that we sold at the beginning of the Schwarzenegger administration that was approved by the voters.
I did a lot of work on health care, some of that has seen some effect. Unfortunately, we had an opportunity back in the late 90’s to actually do a major expansion of healthcare for families in CA that wouldn’t have cost that much and would have reduced the uninsured a lot, but that’s when we cut the VLF [vehicle license fee] and ran out of money.
The other side is staff, a lot of what we do is keep things that wouldn’t be so smart from happening. People have a lot of ideas and they’re all well-intentioned, but sometimes they just don’t work. So it’s going through and trying to provide information to the members, “OK this may seem like a good idea but here are some reasons why it may not be a good idea.” The public never sees that.
One example is the attempt by the Senate Republicans to eliminate Ready Return and CalFile, literally in the middle of the night when the July budget deal was going through. Anthony York wrote about it on Sept. 24th. This language surfaced in the Senate around 2 am. I looked it over and realized that not only would it kill the relatively small ReadyReturn program, which would have been bad enough on its own, but that it also would kill the much larger CalFile program through some seemingly innocuous language. I was able to alert Craig Cornett and Chris Woods. We were able to explain the situation to Senator Steinberg, who put a stop to it.