By Dan Walters
Published: Sunday, May. 25, 2014 – 12:00 am
As he unveiled a revised state budget this month, Gov. Jerry Brown was peppered with questions about new spending that his fellow Democrats were touting – everything from health insurance for illegal immigrants to universal pre-kindergarten.
There are, Brown replied, “a lot of ideas to do things,” quickly adding, “We’ve done a lot already, and we haven’t paid for what we’ve done.”
Truer words were never spoken. Over the previous 15 years, California had amassed enormous debts under Brown’s two immediate predecessors, Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The state now owes about $340 billion, with unfunded liabilities for pensions and retiree health care by far the largest pieces. While not all debt was taken on during the past 15 years, it was a period of particularly irresponsible finances.
State employee and teacher pension benefits were increased on the convenient fiction that investment earnings would pay for them, and pension contributions were actually reduced.
Unemployment insurance benefits were increased without increasing payroll taxes to pay for them, meaning the state had to borrow $10 billion from the federal government when recession hit.
And so forth.
Davis – Brown’s chief of staff during his first governorship – was especially profligate, largely to please the unions that had backed his campaign for the governorship in 1998. As his deficits mounted, he paid the political price by being recalled.
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