Gov. Jerry Brown deserves great credit for the improved state government finances during the first three years of his modern-era term.
While a recovering economy, a surging stock market and strong California job growth have played key roles, the state's new fiscal stability was also bolstered by voter approval of a temporary tax increase that Brown pushed across the electoral finish line.
At the same time, he has enforced spending restraint, ended the state's wasteful and costly redevelopment agencies, and shifted more responsibility and funding for education and criminal detention to the local level where the services can often be delivered more efficiently.
Yet, as the governor made clear in his State of the State address Wednesday, we're not out of the woods. Not even close. This is no time to boost expenditures. We can't assume that the positive revenue trajectory will continue.
For starters, the tax increase is temporary, phasing out starting in 2016 and terminating by the end of 2018. Second, the state has benefitted from high levels of volatile capital gains tax revenues that history tells us will not continue.
Third, despite the governor's claims, the state does not have "a budgetary surplus in the billions," and state spending and revenues are not "solidly balanced." It's time for Brown to stop perpetuating this fiction.
His false accounting ignores that the state has been underfunding state teacher pensions and retiree health care obligations for years, simply missing payments on rapidly mounting debts. It's easy to claim the books are balanced when omitting key items.
That said, to mix the lines of politicians past, are we better off than we were four years ago? You betcha.
Brown has helped bring us a long way. He now must not only block budgetary backsliding by the state Legislature, he must keep chipping away at the state's debt so that he can actually balance the budget. And he should stop wasting money on his pet project, high-speed rail.
Unfortunately, in an attempt to score political points by overstating the solidity of state finances, Brown weakens his ability to eventually get there. His surplus talk reinforces the delusions of financially challenged Democratic lawmakers who are ready to start singing "Happy Days Are Here Again."
With an improved economy, the governor has a window of opportunity to finish the job, to finally right the state's finances before the next, inevitable downturn.
The next year will be critical. Brown's legacy depends on whether he seizes the moment. He says he will. We hope he does.