‘COPS’ program an example of why California is in trouble

There’s no single reason why California, once a model of fiscal probity, finds itself with an intractable budget crisis.

Rather, it’s been budgetary death by a thousand cuts — countless single-purpose decisions over several decades by voters and politicians to either increase spending or reduce revenues, eventually resulting in what Capitol bean counters call a “structural deficit.”

Even when the economy is doing well, California struggles to cover all of its paper spending commitments. When it’s doing poorly, as it is now, the deficit soars to unmanageable proportions.

No one set out to create the fiscal crisis, of course. It’s just what happens when commitments are made with no thought to their long-term financial consequences. Take, for instance, a program called Citizens Option for Public Safety, which goes by the oh-so-cute acronym of COPS.

It began 15 years ago, when the state was coming out of a severe recession and revenues were beginning to increase. By unanimous votes, both houses of the Legislature enacted a bill to give local police, sheriff’s offices and prosecutors $100 million from the state treasury to underwrite their operations.

There’s no particular reason why the state should be subsidizing city and county law enforcement, but it gave everyone involved, including then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a political boost.

COPS became an entitlement, another piece of the state budget pie whose recipients organize to defend and enhance it. And, of course, it grew, especially during the governorship of Arnold Schwarzenegger, finally reaching the half-billion-dollar-a-year mark, five times its original size.

Schwarzenegger’s successor, Jerry Brown, not only wants to preserve COPS but to enshrine it in the state constitution, virtually guaranteeing that it could never be reduced. It’s one component of what he calls “realignment,” shifting programmatic responsibility for some state activities to local governments, along with money to pay for them.

COPS is tagged at $506 million and, with other realignment programs, would be financed initially from a five-year extension of some temporary taxes — if Brown can ever make that happen — and then from the state general fund after the taxes expire.

Constitutionally guaranteed spending tied to temporary revenues is precisely the wrong way to resolve California’s budget squeeze, especially when the spending is for something like COPS that the state had no business doing in the first place.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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