Death by Small Budget Cuts

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Remember the early months of this year when Gov. Jerry Brown and much of Sacramento were boasting about frugality?

Brown took away state employees' cell phones and cut other perks. A citizens' commission even declared it would take away the allowance state legislators receive for their cars.

The supposed savings from these changes were peanuts given the scale of the state budget problem.

But wise folks in Sacramento said they were a crucial step in the effort to fix the budget -- since they would give the public confidence that things were under control. That would make it easier to raise revenues and make the other difficult cuts necessary to preserve core public problems like schools.

As we approach the end of the year, it's clear that this strategy failed.

In three ways:

1. Californians still lack confidence in their government.

Somehow, Sacramento's rooting out of waste hasn't convinced Californians that the government is frugal; if anything it's reminded them of it.

2. The penny-pinching didn't make the budget any easier.

Republicans blocked tax increases because that's what California's budget system allows them to do. That resulted in a budget made up of cuts to vital programs and gimmicks. In two weeks, another $2 billion in cuts, hitting schools and universities particularly hard, are likely to be triggered because revenues fell short of overly optimistic estimates.

3. It's not clear that the cutting of perks saved money.

The LA Times reported that the effort to take away lawmakers' cars may end up costing taxpayers more money.

That's because lawmakers would still have to be reimbursed at 55.5 cents per mile for official trips they make in their own vehicles. It turns out that such reimbursements would cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the auto allowances did.

The lesson? The real waste in California governance is all the time and energy devoted to small, confidence-building measures.

It would be much better to fix the budget system itself.

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