State Budget Shortfall

State Budget Shortfall: Where is the Urgency? Time for Strict Accountability and Oversight

by Betty Yee, January 2024

The state budget and present deficit have real impacts and consequences for all Californians. A recent poll of registered voters by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and The Los Angeles Times shows everyday Californians recognize just how serious this could be. Yet the Legislature will not begin budget hearings in earnest until Spring, leaving affected Californians in limbo and with little time to prepare for the impacts on their lives from anticipated cuts and program delays.

I applaud Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas for centering the budget process on accountability and oversight by establishing a new budget subcommittee so charged. However, the Legislature must get to work immediately.

Just what is on the line, you ask? Proposed reductions to K-12 education funding may cause school districts to issue pink slips for the upcoming school year as soon as March. Termination of federal funding without replacement state funding for services such as emergency shelter for survivors of domestic violence may force survivors to remain in unsafe circumstances. Reductions and delays in funding for climate resiliency and adaptation programs may result in higher long-term costs, limiting the state’s ability to prepare for and respond to catastrophic events. Delaying recently promised new funding to support health care workers would adversely affect patient care even as this workforce already endures ongoing shortages. Deferring funding to serve communities at risk of homelessness will result in more unhoused Californians in need of support.

The list goes on and on…

As a former state budget director and State Controller, I understand too well the dependence of our budget on tax revenues generated by our highest earners. While April 15 tax receipts will inform the May Revise and final budget, the accountability and oversight work can and should begin now. 

There are a number of things the Legislature needs to quickly assess: Is California collecting all taxes, assessments, and fees provided for under current law before new or increased ones are considered? Are fund balances healthy enough to meet future needs for their respective programs, especially if the state may borrow internally from these funds? Has all prior appropriated funding been expended? Is California rooting out waste in its government agencies and departments? Does California direct its funds effectively and efficiently? Are state programs accomplishing what they set out to do? If not, what changes need to be made to the programs, including eliminating them? Are state contractors delivering results as outlined in their scope of work, and at what cost? Are state technology systems supporting and informing program deliverables and progress? What additional impacts will there be if the budget crisis necessitates declaration of a fiscal emergency, whereby the Governor may unilaterally direct any appropriated funds?

Accountability and oversight on these issues have been too lax. By their nature, the Legislature and Administrations establish new programs with insufficient regard for the effectiveness of existing programs, how best to integrate changes into existing programs, and how to measure progress. The confluence of related yet redundant standards that cut across issue areas such as public health and environmental health, for example, lead to growing frustration among those who must comply with the standards and determine how to measure program effectiveness and outcomes on affected communities. 

Policymakers must urgently recognize they are working with finite fiscal resources. They must confront tough budget decisions now, as the decisions only become tougher – and more costly – if they continue to kick the can down the road. By fully exercising their accountability and oversight responsibilities and making their deliberations more transparent, the public may more fully understand the tough decisions ahead.

If elected officials truly mean it when they say, “The budget is a statement of our values,” they must embrace the highest level of accountability and oversight with the urgency the times demand.  

Betty Yee served as California State Controller from 2015-2023.