Much to like in new state budget

The new spending plan for California, approved late Tuesday night by both chambers of the state Legislature, accomplishes many things, but its main achievement may be that it gives state residents a reason to believe their government is firmly on the right track.

Throughout the second half of the 1990s and into the new century, Sacramento was riven by bitter disputes among its top office-holders. Seemingly endless partisan fighting made it almost impossible for elected officials to address the real and growing problems facing California.

The nastiness and ineffectiveness resulted in a devastating, poorly managed energy crisis, growing budget deficits and a paucity of solutions for the state’s demographic challenges and crumbling infrastructure. The state was getting more crowded, more debt-ridden and more unworkable. Fed-up voters took the unprecedented step of recalling Gov. Gray Davis and installing Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The latest budget agreement shows just how far California has come. The $130.9 billion plan includes the largest-ever increases for public schools — from $50 billion last year to $55.1 billion this year — and a simultaneous set-aside of $4.9 billion, or nearly 5 percent of the total budget, to repay the state’s debt and build its reserve fund. California will now have its largest store of reserves since the mid-1970s.

While Democratic and Republican lawmakers bickered a little over important but relatively small allocations, there can be no mistake that this was the governor’s budget. It fulfilled his twin mandates of increasing school funding and paying down the debt — two ambitious goals only made possible by soaring state revenues, which were enabled by Schwarzenegger’s commitment to creating a productive business environment, including no new taxes.

The entire political atmosphere around this budget was in keeping with the greater sense of collegiality that was nurtured this spring, when Schwarzenegger led a bipartisan effort to place a $37.3 billion infrastructure bond package on the November ballot.

It was a welcome relief for Californians, who were tired of years of petty politics getting in the way of effective public policy.

The new state budget is not perfect. California will still spend more than it brings in, which means lawmakers have not mastered the prudent fiscal practice of balancing the books. But it is another solid step in Schwarzenegger’s multi-year plan to put California’s fiscal house in order.

There’s another reason to applaud this budget: If Gov. Schwarzenegger signs it by midnight Friday, the start of the new fiscal year, it means California will have its first on-time budget in six years.

It’s another sign that state government is more effective than it has been in many years.

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