Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Stop your whining

For those who live outside California, the state right now is trying (or failing) to cope with its decennial budget disaster. This time around, the state is looking at a $14.5 billion shortfall in projected revenues. The governor is proposing a 10% across the board cut, including $4.4 billion from funding for local K-12 schools and $1.1 billion from higher education.

This man-made budget disaster is more predictable than the Atlantic hurricane season, let alone California earthquakes. In good times, the politicians spend like drunken sailors — increasing the spending base — and then when the economic cycle inevitably turns down, they wonder why the state is broke.

The end of the dot-com bubble brought the 2003 recall of a governor, who was replaced by the governator; this year’s budget problems are playing out like five years ago. In 1991 — when California had to pay the peace dividend through aerospace layoffs — Republican Pete Wilson faced a then-record $14 billion deficit, raising taxes to pay half and cutting spending for the rest.

This week, teenagers (encouraged by cynical political activists) are running around like this has never happened before, making narcissistic pronouncements about how spending less on them is bad for the whole world. What prompt me to write this post was a radio soundbite, the claim of a semi-articulate student that “It’s going to impact everyone, the lack of prioritization of education in this state.”

They act as though there’s some big pot of money waiting to be spent on them, but there isn’t. The reality of state spending in a cyclical economy is that some years there is less money to spend. Since the politicians never save for a rainy day — they’d rather buy votes with spending increases or tax cuts — the best we can hope for is that they’ll pay down debt when the coffers are full.

That said, the cuts made this year by the state in UC and CSU funding will probably never fully restored. The easy cuts have been made, as when the UC replacing state funding in part by raising professional school (medicine, law, business) fees to market prices. For the CSU, we will likely see another ratchet in the inexorable rise of class size, reducing the individual attention that students receive. Special programs that have outside funding (like honors) will survive, but ones that don’t have such funding (such as our prize-winning simulation program) are likely to disappear unless they can get such funding.

Update 3:30 p.m.: I'm told price increases for CSU business schools (following the UC model) are likely to happen; as with UC, raising fees will presumably reduce state funding of professional schools so the money can be redeployed elsewhere in higher education.

That plan explains this benchmark arguing California fees are too low. It doesn't explain what will happen the next time there's a budget crisis, when the fees have already been raised.

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