The pollsters like to call it the Santa Claus effect, and we've seen it over and over in surveys of California voters in the past few months. I think of it more as some sort of deep political pathology, a schizophrenia combined with delusions that underlies the state's inability to get anything done.
Here's what the data shows:
California voters don't want cuts to higher education; in fact, they want to see more money spent on the University of California system, the California State University system, and local community colleges. They don't want cuts to K-12 education either. Nor do they want to shut down state parks, release prisoners early, close public hospitals, stop building high-speed rail, reduce state support of local government ... or do anything else that would save a significant amount of money.
And they don't want tax increases.
If you ask people how they think the state should balance the budget, they talk about cutting waste — even though the current Republican governor admits there's not that much waste left to cut.
I could spend hours talking about how we got here, how decades of corruption and bad governmental priorities soured people so much on the public sector that they don't believe the state can be trusted to spend their money properly. But part of the issue is that the news media (which love to find a little waste here and there to trumpet) are very bad at presenting the choices.
Nobody in Sacramento's going to do anything serious about the budget until Jerry Brown takes office; that's just how it is. So this psycho-financial nightmare is going to fall in his lap — and I wonder sometimes if he ought to force us all to make the choices we want to avoid.
Maybe Brown ought to call a special election in February or March and put two — and exactly two — measures before the voters. Both would balance the state budget. One would do it almost entirely with cuts, and those cuts would be clearly defined: public schools would shut down all over the state. Class size would rise to 40 or more kids. UC would close half its campuses and admit half the number of qualified students it does today. At least 100,000 prisoners would be released as several prison are mothballed. The entire state park system would be shuttered. And that's just the start. Consumer protection agencies would be abolished, public health devastated — there wouldn't be a single thing that Californians take for granted that would survive.
Because that's what a cuts-only, no borrowing budget would look like.
The other proposition would save those services by closing tax loopholes that benefit big business and raising income taxes on the wealthiest people in the state. Brown would have to travel up and down the state and make it clear: these are the choices we face. You can't solve a $20 billion budget crisis without either tearing the state apart or raising taxes.
No more ducking. No more pretending. No more looking around for Santa Claus. Make the choice, folks: accept new taxes on a small percentage of the population, or give up on the state.
It's a scary thought, but it may have to come to that.