Jerry Brown

Gov. Jerry Brown leaves a news conference where he unveiled his proposed 2016-17 state budget. (Rich Pedroncelli / AP)

John Myers
January 8, 2016

It was during a boisterous and brusque budget presentation when Gov. Jerry Brown offered a candid assessment of why he’s unwilling to grant too many legislative spending requests.

“There will be a tendency just to do everything, and then I’ll have to straighten it out at the end,” he said when releasing his $170.7 billion plan Thursday.

To avoid that, Brown deftly uses the single most powerful budget-writing tool at his disposal: the official forecast of tax revenues, the foundation on which all spending plans are built. Lower the forecasts, say budget watchers, and you neutralize most every request to expand government services.

“We’ve been concerned that this hasn’t received enough attention in the last few years,” said Chris Hoene, executive director of the California Budget and Policy Center, a nonprofit that advocates for programs to help the working poor.

Even the best state budgets include revenue estimates that are the product of mixing precise data with old-fashioned gut instinct. Economic forecasting, it’s said, is more art than science.

It can also have a dash of politics.

Governors routinely have different budget roadmaps than legislators. Brown has made it clear that his begins with a heavy bias towards caution.

“He figures that if he’s conservative going in, that gives him resources to work with the following year,” said Fred Silva, a budget analyst with the bipartisan think thank California Forward.

The question though, is do legislators agree with the governor’s revenue predictions? Recent history suggests the answer is no.

Over the past three years, the Legislature’s budget experts have predicted tax revenues would come in at higher levels than Brown assumed. When the final numbers were tallied, the legislative analysts have been more accurate.

And yet each year, enacted budgets used the lower revenues from the governor.

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