That metallic clang you hear is the state budget can being kicked down the road — again.
The governor and Legislature last week finally reached an accord to end the record-long budget standoff that had left California without a spending plan for nearly three months of the fiscal year. The governor obtained some major concessions from Democratic legislators to bolster the state's "rainy day" fund in future years. Those changes will still need voter approval.
But the budget deal didn't resolve the state's ongoing imbalance between revenues and expenditures. As a result, much of the shortfall lawmakers faced this year will rear its ugly head again next time.
For months now, we've been told the state had a $15.2 billion shortfall. That represented the difference between the anticipated revenues for the 2008-09 fiscal year and the amount that would be needed to maintain state services at current levels. To help bridge the gap, lawmakers trimmed services. The state's general fund expenditures will still be slightly more than last year, but not enough to keep up with inflation and population increases.
However, the majority of the gap was closed on the revenue side. There were accounting gimmicks. For example, some of the September quarterly tax payments made by wealthy and self-employed individuals will now be credited to the prior fiscal year. That provides a one-time bump to the bottom line, but leaves the state with a permanent dependence on future money to balance its books each year.
There were also tax law changes. For example, those people making quarterly payments will now have to pay 60 percent of their obligation in the first two payments. That accelerates revenues — essentially borrowing more money from taxpayers — but leaves the state with a permanent accounting shift.
It could have been worse. If not for the governor's veto threat, legislators would have increased the state tax withholding for employees who draw regular paychecks.
That would have meant state borrowing from workers who could afford it the least. It was a bad idea and was rightfully dropped.
Meanwhile, we should celebrate the changes Gov. Schwarzenegger won for the rainy day fund, for use during tough economic times. This builds on the governor's voter-approved budget reforms from 2004. Under the latest changes, the fund will be built up to 12.5 percent of the general fund, instead of the current 5 percent requirement.
The changes also will make it harder for lawmakers to avoid making contributions to the fund and will restrict how the money can be used during downturns.
But the rainy day fund changes, which will require voter approval, won't take effect until the 2010-11 fiscal year. And they do nothing to divert the state from a trajectory in which expenditures outpace revenues.
The basic structural imbalance remains, which means that we'll probably go through a similar budget standoff next year.