California voters are pretty good at figuring out what is going in the state capital when it hits them directly. For example, recent polling shows that citizen awareness of the $5.2 billion annual gas and car tax is very high and, incidentally, very negative.
But the same can’t be said when it comes to the more complicated and arcane actions of our state politicians such as the annual California state budget process. While Californians are painfully aware that taxes are very high (they’ve been watching their friends and neighbors moving out of state at record pace) they typically have little comprehension of where their tax dollars go. That’s not surprising since California ranks dead last in budget transparency according to a recent study by U.S. News & World Report.
Nonetheless, here are the main takeaways that every California taxpayer should know.
First, the budget is huge – over $125 billion in general fund spending – by far the largest budget in California history. Since the recovery began after the great recession, taxpayers have infused California’s General Fund with $41 billion and special funds by $28 billion. That translates into a 63 percent increase since 2010. And property owners have done their part as well. With real estate values fully recovered (and then some) property tax revenues are up 72 percent. This is where our schools get the lion’s share of their money.
Second, the budget is only balanced if you ignore debt. The majority party is practically breaking their arms trying to pat themselves on the back for a “balanced budget.” This is like a family celebrating the fact that they paid all their bills this month but ignoring the fact that they have a mortgage that is way beyond their means over the long term. California’s pension debt is, by some measurements, close to a trillion dollars.
Third, the budget is, as usual, full of tricks and questionable accounting. One of the more dubious ploys involves borrowing from…