Politics & Government

California's 'free lunch syndrome' helped create its budget mess

The way Dave Doerr sees it, California's elected leaders ran for the wrong offices.

"They really ran to be Santa Claus, and made a mistake and filed for the Assembly and the Senate," said Doerr, the senior tax consultant for the California Taxpayers Association.

Doerr's reference is to a penchant of lawmakers and governors over the past three decades to spend whatever money they have on hand — and promise even more — then let succeeding budget drafters fend for themselves.

"They provide what I call the 'free lunch syndrome,' " said Doerr, who closely observed Capitol life as a top Assembly budget consultant for 40 years. "They pass programs and they don't pass the funding to pay for them."

Doerr's observation is borne out by a Bee analysis of California's spending and debt patterns compared to other states', which found California spends more per capita than the national average in every government program except highways and public welfare — but consistently runs budget deficits and takes on more and more debt.

Those debts include about $246 billion in delays, deferrals and unfunded liabilities to fund schools, public works projects and public employee pensions.

From its beginning, California has had a kinetic economy. Gold propelled it into statehood. When the Gold Rush waned, there was wheat, fruit, real estate, movies, oil, defense, aerospace, computers — and peaks and valleys with each.

That economy occasionally was reflected in state budgets. From 1945 to 1978, according to Department of Finance statistics, state government spent more general fund revenues than it collected in 11 of 34 years.

The relative kiddie carousel of budgetary ups and downs became a white-knuckle roller coaster in 1978, with the passage of Proposition 13, which cut property taxes and required a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to pass statewide taxes.

Of the 32 budgets passed since then, 19 have spent more than the state took in from tax revenues.

To read the complete article, visit www.sacbee.com.

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