In Sacramento the past several years, the approach of spring has meant that newfound state money begins to bloom. An invigorated economy brought in billions in unanticipated revenues, touching off a fervor of new spending and tax cuts in the Legislature. This year, the growth in the economy has cooled a bit, but the legislative analyst still estimates that the state may receive $1.3 billion more than was anticipated in the austere budget that Democratic Gov. Gray Davis submitted to the Legislature in early January.
Lawmakers, of course, already have figured out ways to spend it. Republicans are calling for another tax cut. But the tax payers already will pocket $2.6 billion during the budget year starting July 1 as a result of tax cuts enacted in 1997 and 1998.
The first priority should be to honor spending commitments from last year that later were scaled back or eliminated in Davis' budget. Two that were particularly hard hit were state aid to local government and the state Department of Parks and Recreation. City and county officials estimate that Davis reduced spending commitments to local government by about $200 million. On Friday, state Sen. Steve Peace (D-EI Cajon) took the first corrective step by proposing a restoration of $48 million in aid to counties to support the trial court system.
Peace's rough outline of a proposed Senate budget also included a minimal amount of money for natural resources projects, but he promised to seek budget revisions that would free up as much as $100 million for parks, coastal protection, land acquisition and other programs. The parks took a severe blow in Davis' budget with a reduction ot $112 million from the levels approved last summer; there was no money at all to make up for the constant deferral of critical maintenance in the park system.
The Parks Department estimates its annual maintenance costs at $15 million a year. But that is merely to pay for the most critical ot projects, such as leaky roofs and storm damage. It does nothing about the repairs that have been put off from year to year because there has been no money. The department estimates the backlog at $180 million. The longer the work is postponed, the more it will cost. Califomia once had the nation's premier park system. Today it is shabby and shameful.
Other critical budget decisions must be made between now and July 1. The Davis administration will submit a revised budget in May, when the Finance Department has a better picture of how much revenue will be available in the coming year. The state needs to bank a prudent reserve for emergencies and make funds available for state employee pay raises. But local governments and parks are two areas that warrant commitments for a better budget deal right now.
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