Sunday, May 18, 2008

Club tries, fails to solve budget riddle

ORINDA — Blame the heat. Or maybe it was just too hard to choose between an affordable college education and health care for poor people in wheelchairs.

But the 40 hardy folks of the Lamorinda Democrat Club gathered in a community room with no air conditioning on an unseasonably warm Friday night just couldn't balance the out-of-whack state budget.

The exercise was courtesy of Next 10, a Palo Alto-based nonpartisan organization that brought its portable version of the online California Budget Challenge to Orinda.

Audience members debated and then registered their votes on individual wireless voting devices about where to spend, where to save and whether to raise taxes.

Organizers displayed the voting results immediately on the screen in a satisfying, colored bar graph that told the story at a glance. (A practice question revealed overwhelming support for Democratic presidential candidate and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.)

Before long, the $6.9 billion deficit the group started with (based on a five-year projection) swelled to as high as $16 billion as the Democrats voted to spend more money on schools, suspend college tuition hikes and expand health care for the poor.

"Students are getting bled dry," said Concord college student Rebecca Barrett, arguing for a lid on tuition costs. "We need college degrees to get jobs but we need to make it accessible to middle class and lower-income families."

The Democrats Advertisementwhittled their deficit back down to $6.7 billion with support for plans such as shifting the responsibility for low-level parolees to counties, nixing pay raises for prison guards, hiking taxes on people who earn more than $250,000 a year and restoring the car tax.

"We need to prioritize," said Jenny Reich, the club's co-youth outreach coordinator with Barrett. "We can't do everything."

The club's two young members and the other participants may be a lot closer to solving the state's chronic deficit than state lawmakers.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger released his revised May budget last week and recommended a series of proposals he says will close an estimated $17.2 billion deficit next year.

Democrats immediately denounced his proposed spending cuts as untenable and the sale of the state lottery as too speculative. They also don't like the governor's idea to create a rainy day fund and give himself the power to cut in bad years.

Republicans opposed Schwarzenegger's idea to trigger a temporary 1-cent sales tax hike if voters reject the lottery plan.

In an interesting twist, Next 10 imposed a two-thirds voting requirement on the Lamorinda Democrat Club audience Friday in an effort to more closely mimic the state's budget process.

The Legislature mandates a two-thirds approval for the budget, which means the Republicans can block it until Democrats meet their demands.

Moving to a simple majority rule would have transformed the club's budget from a $6.9 billion deficit to a $3.7 million surplus.

Some of the areas where club members couldn't meet the two-thirds threshold included subsidies for the use of fuel-efficient cars, an extension of unemployment jobless benefits or how to pay for ballooning public employee retirement health care costs.

But the biggest split came over the imposition of a tax on carbon emissions to raise money for the general fund, which would have erased the deficit and created a surplus.

Just under half the group argued that it made no sense to become financially dependent on emissions taxes at the same time the state seeks to cut its greenhouse gases.

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