Boskin and Cogan: California’s Casino Budgeting
Published in Wall Street Journal
California’s fiscal and governance crisis careens from bad to worse. The latest blow: a 70% increase in the state’s projected budget deficit in Gov. Jerry Brown’s revised budget, to $16 billion from $9 billion. Meanwhile, S&P warns of a downgrade to the state’s bond rating, already the lowest of any state, and the latest CEO survey ranks California’s business climate dead last.
Caught in the symbiotic financial embrace of special interests—teacher and other public-employee unions, trial lawyers and environmental extremists—Mr. Brown and the state legislature repeatedly nibble around the edges of the budget broken by costly, ineffective programs, financed by an uncompetitive, volatile tax system.
Mr. Brown colorfully but correctly calls the budget, riddled with earmarks and creative accounting, a “pretzel palace of incredible complexity.” He and the state legislature are choking on the pretzel. They’ve lost credibility by offering hopelessly optimistic projections; diverting revenue earmarked for other purposes (such as funds meant to help homeowners from the national bank-mortgage settlement) to the general fund; and gambling on Silicon Valley to produce more revenue from capital gains and stock options. Call it casino budgeting.
The governor describes his budget and November tax-hike ballot initiative as “real increased austerity” while calling on voters to “please increase taxes temporarily.” Cutting through the shifting numbers and fanciful assumptions, what is actually proposed is closer to a permanent tax hike and modest temporary budget cuts to fund a permanent spending increase.
Mr. Brown’s original bad idea, raising the state’s top marginal tax rate of 10.3% to 12.3% for five years, is now even worse: a highest-in-the-nation 13.3% on individuals and small businesses for seven years retroactive to Jan. 1, 2012, and a small increase in the sales tax for next year.
While the governor proposes cuts in social services, higher education and the courts, total spending nevertheless goes up to $91.4 billion in fiscal year 2013 from $86.5 billion in 2012, a 6% increase. Spending on K-12 education alone rises beyond constitutional requirements to $38.5 billion from $34 billion, a 13% increase.
In the past, Californians have supported more education spending on the assumption it would improve education outcomes. It hasn’t. Sadly, the state has an elementary and secondary school system that ranks in the bottom fifth of all 50 states in math scores, and a high-school dropout rate that’s soared relative to other states, especially for African Americans and Hispanics.
The prison system spends $45,000 per year per inmate—about equal to the median take-home pay of American families. Welfare and MediCal (the state’s Medicaid program) caseloads are vastly in excess of national averages.
Mr. Brown does have some good proposals. He’s bringing the state’s welfare-to-work program in line with federal rules, and he’s called for small Medicaid co-pays, which the Obama administration foolishly blocked. But his bad ideas far outweigh the good, including restricting the use of private contractors on public projects and a $68 billion high-speed rail proposal that would drain revenues from higher priorities for decades.
The governor’s one innovative program is “realignment” between the state and counties, especially of the state’s overburdened prison system. But counties worry that costs of the permanent shift of convicts from state prisons to county jails will eventually fall to them.
Unlike other governors from both parties who pushed overdue reforms, opposed by public-employee unions, through their legislatures—Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, New Jersey’s Chris Christie and New York’s Andrew Cuomo, to varying degrees—Mr. Brown has not even pressed the Democratic-controlled legislature to pass his own sensible pension proposal.
He is seeking a deal with the unions that only temporarily reduces wages and work hours by 5% each, saving 0.4% of the budget. Usually a pay cut refers to working the same hours for less pay, not a forced, unpaid vacation. Mr. Brown has not made it clear whether the reduction is for one year or longer, or even whether the compensation would be paid back later (if so, it amounts to a paid vacation, not a pay cut).
The governor has reduced the workforce by 2% and proposed further, gradual reductions. But this represents a failure of imagination. The state should replace half of the sizable number of workers who will retire in the next 10 years with technology and at the same time institute performance pay, saving a bundle and improving service delivery.
Meanwhile, Mr. Brown forges ahead with his proposal for higher taxes despite considerable evidence that states with lower tax rates grow faster than states with high tax rates. Higher marginal tax rates will speed the exodus from the state, which has a 10.9% unemployment rate, the country’s third-highest.
California’s casino-like budget reflects its highly volatile revenue system. In good times it collects almost half its income taxes from the top 1% of the population, relying heavily on capital gains, taxed at ordinary income rates, and stock options. This exposes the state to dramatic revenue collapses during recessions and stock market declines.
The state lurched from income tax growth of 54% in the two years from 1998-2000—money that was spent and built into the permanent budget base line—to a collapse that erased these revenue gains the next two years. This dysfunctional swing was repeated in the recent housing bubble and bust. Mr. Brown’s tax initiative would exacerbate the volatility.
To remedy this and other problems, two recent bipartisan California Tax Reform Commissions, one on which we served in 2008-09, recommended the state combine a broader tax base of economic activity with much lower marginal tax rates, modeled on the landmark 1986 tax reform of President Ronald Reagan and Sens. Bill Bradley and Bob Packwood—the exact opposite of Mr. Brown’s proposal.
Absent real reform, there is little likelihood the long-run budget will be balanced, and a high likelihood the “temporary” tax hikes will not only become permanent but form the new base from which even higher taxes are demanded.
California still leads the world in technology, agriculture and entertainment, but politicians in Sacramento are headed in the opposite direction from growth, prosperity and effective, affordable government. They have so far refused to live up to the demands of, let alone seize, the moment. Instead, like their counterparts in Greece and other bankrupt European nations, they seem intent on continuing the broken high-tax-and-spend welfare state experiment as long as they remain in office.
Messrs. Boskin and Cogan are, respectively, professors of economics and public policy at Stanford University, where they are both senior fellows at the Hoover Institution.