Andrew Carter is a City Councilman in San Luis Obispo and a regular contributor to

What a year it’s been in Sacramento, and we’ve still got three months left.  The state budget is supposedly balanced, but does anyone believe it?  To the extent it has been balanced, it’s been done on the backs of cities, counties and schools.  Let’s compare the state budget process to what takes place in San Luis Obispo.

On June 16, San Luis Obispo City Council passed its two-year city budget two weeks before the start of the fiscal year.  We’d been following a timetable laid out last September, which began with citizen input via surveys and included 14 public hearings plus a preliminary budget available for public inspection on May 28.  We closed a budget gap of $11 million, over 15 percent.  The entire process took place in open meetings.  No smoke-filled rooms … or tents.  No backroom deals.  No threats.  No finger pointing.

I was proud to participate in the city process.  My fellow council members would say the same, but none of us deserve special credit.  We were just “doing our jobs.”  Our primary obligation is the fiduciary responsibility we have to our citizens.  Passing a balanced budget in a timely manner is the most fundamental aspect of that responsibility.

There are 478 cities in California, 58 counties, 1000 school districts, and 2300 special districts.  Year-in year-out, most pass balanced budgets on time.  That’s true even though most depend to some extent on state funding, the schools almost completely.  The governing boards of these bodies are just doing their jobs as well.  Why can’t state legislators do the same?  The answer is simple and complex.

On the simple side is the fact that many state legislators would rather play politics than balance the budget.  On the complex side is that our state government system encourages that game playing.  We the people have created that system.

Item 1, the two-thirds majority:  California is one of three states requiring a two-thirds majority to pass a state budget.  We’re one of sixteen states requiring a two-thirds majority to raise taxes.  We’re the only state requiring both.  We want to control our state-level politicians, but this hands the minority party an easy veto, which leads to gridlock.

Item 2, the aftermath of Prop 13:  We all like the fact that property taxes can go up just 2% per year, but the downstream impact of Prop 13 has been immense.  First, the state has taken control of property taxes from local government.  That means less accountability.  It also means local authorities are beholden to the state for their financial well-being.  Second, the state has become dependent on volatile sources of income – sales tax and income tax, particularly the capital gains tax.  That’s led to boom or bust state budgets – plenty of money in good times, too little money in bad.

Item 3, ballot box budgeting:  Through Prop 13 and other measures, we’ve done a great job limiting how much politicians can raise our taxes.  At the same time, through countless initiatives, we’ve mandated minimum spending levels on key programs.  Trouble is there’s no money left over for other programs during the bust portion of the cycle and little opportunity to reduce all programs to make ends meet.  We’ve established minimum funding levels for schools, after-school programs, “First 5” programs, mental health programs, prisons (through our “three strikes” law), you name it.  We’ve also passed countless bond measures with required annual interest payments for state water, parks, high speed rail, stem cell research, etc.

Item 4, term limits:  Unwilling to toss out individual “bums,” we decided to limit how long any one person can serve in Sacramento.  But that means most legislators aren’t there long enough to learn their jobs, and many are more focused on getting their next job than doing the one they have now.  Term limits have handed power to the lobbyists, special interests, and statewide party leaders who have the money to fund that next campaign.

Item 5, gerrymandered districts:  The politicians did this themselves, creating safe districts that are either always Republican or always Democrat.  That means the party primary becomes the controlling election, not the general election, and party primaries tend to be controlled by the most partisan voters.  Ideologues of the right and left get elected, not centrists who might be more willing to compromise.

There you have it, a short explanation for the mess in Sacramento.  We the people have addressed Item 5.  Last year with Prop 11, we set up an independent commission to draw district boundaries in the future.  And in 2010, we’ll have the opportunity to vote on “top-two” primaries which might lead to more centrists getting elected.  We still need to address Items 1 through 4.

I’ll propose the radical notion that we need to make it easier for state-level politicians to do their jobs, even if that makes it easier for them to do what we don’t like.  If they don’t do what we like, we need to take responsibility and vote them out.  The artificial constraints we’ve created aren’t working.

Andrew Carter was elected to City Council in San Luis Obispo in 2006. A moderate Democrat, he’s been a strong advocate for economic development, affordable housing, and neighborhood quality. He is a regular contributor to PublicCEO.