Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Fun with the California Budget

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The Los Angeles Times has a fun (frightening?) interactive tool where you can try your hand at eliminating California’s deficit, limiting yourself to options actually on the table in Sacramento (if I understand the tool correctly). Here’s my stab at balancing the budget — note: these aren’t necessarily my considered policy preferences, but just my first stab playing around with the tool with a special eye toward prisons, the fastest-growing component of California’s spending commitments.

Three things I like about the tool:

  • It comes with a Q&A that punctures various right-wing canards about California’s budget woes. California’s not bleeding money on discretionary services for illegal immigrants, its taxes aren’t the highest in the nation, and depending on what program you’re looking at, California isn’t actually that generous with welfare spending: “For some benefits, California’s payouts are among the lowest in the nation. For others, the state is more generous.”
  • The tool graphically illustrates how hard it would be to make the necessary cuts if you have any level of commitment to public education and welfare programs — and if you know what kinds of cuts/fee hikes California’s K-12 schools, community colleges, and universities have already endured.
  • Finally, the tool shows just how much of California’s budget is currently being sucked up by its counterproductive sentencing policies. The option on the table is to reduce the prison population by 40,000 inmates, but that still leaves over 100,000 inmates behind bars and the state’s bloated prison system basically intact.

When playing around with the tool, the easiest choice for me — although it’s probably a lot harder for people who work in Sacramento — was to “release” 40,000 prisoners. This wouldn’t be that radical of a step: California’s already under a federal court order to do so, and there are viable plans out there for gradually reducing the prison population without sacrificing public safety — mainly by fixing California’s absurdly broken and wasteful parole system, which resembles that of no other state in the nation.

That still left me with a sizable gap to close, but I was reluctant to touch public-safety, prison-rehabilitation, or drug-treatment programs, because I know that in the long run, those are the types of programs that will make prison and sentencing reform sustainable by lowering recidivism. If California wants to get serious about fiscal sanity, it can’t make short-term cuts that will only drive the prison population right back up.

For the same reason, and also because I’m sort of a socialist when it comes to public education, I didn’t make any cuts to college and university spending. Reluctantly, I did approve a de facto cut on K-12 spending. I approved keeping K-12 expenditures at the state-constitutional minimum, but that means not making up the loss of federal funds that California’s schools will face this year. If I were to do this again, I might try to figure out a way to avoid that outcome, since California’s K-12 spending is already woefully low compared to other states.

I was finally able to eliminate the deficit (and then some) when I bit the bullet, cut the Legislature’s own budget, and imposed a variety of tax hikes. But I don’t feel great about these choices, because consumption taxes and vehicle fees and the like are basically regressive taxes. For instance, I raised the gasoline tax, but I’m not sure I’m committed to that choice: even though environmentally I’m a big fan of not driving, it’s not like public transportation and bicycling are viable options in large parts of California like they are where I live. In my heart of hearts, I’d much rather go with the high-earner tax and the crude-oil tax, but I just don’t know enough about the economy-wide effects those taxes would have.

Some other choices I made: No speeding cameras! They don’t make anyone safer and they breed animosity towards the government. I chose to raise the alcohol tax instead of the cigarette tax, since while both are regressive taxes, it’s my sense that cigarettes are already taxed pretty heavily and a per-drink alcohol tax seems a bit less regressive than cigarettes, since wealthier people probably smoke less in the aggregate and order more drinks (although I could be completely off-base in my understanding of how such taxes would work). (And now that I think about it, why not impose a temporary luxury-martini tax in Silicon Valley and LA? The expense-account high-rollers probably wouldn’t even notice!) And I wouldn’t attempt to turn over illegal-immigrant inmates to the feds: as the tool notes, there’s no reason to think this would necessarily work, I’m also just not a fan of deportations generally, and Obama’s administration is already deporting folks at a pretty fast clip without California’s help.

Lastly, I’m pretty horrified to see that one of the options on offer is to close all of California’s community colleges — that would be a huge blow to affordable, accessible post-secondary education in the Golden State. I hope that’s not really something that’s being seriously considered.

Written by sara

February 5, 2011 at 8:06 am

One Response

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  1. […] that prisons are California taxpayers’ least favorite government expense (in other words, I’m not the only one!): When PPIC asked voters which major areas should be hit with cuts, just 24% named K-12 education, […]


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