Saturday, May 14, 2022

The Stakes of California's Surplus

Like Springfield, California is faced with a high stakes surplus

Yesterday brought the news that California has an almost $100 billion budget surplus this year, almost half of which can be spent on pretty much anything. This presents an amazing opportunity, one not just for California, but for the country at large.

In my lifetime state-level budgets and politics have been geared towards neoliberal austerity, and California has been no exception. A state where local public university students did not have to pay tuition now charges tens of thousands of dollars, for instance. Conservatives abhor budget surpluses because it does not allow them to proclaim that services must be cut and new programs avoided because "where is the money going to come from?" When I lived in Texas during the recession the state actually had a "rainy day fund" and didn't spend it during the downturn, using that as an excuse to slash the budgets of state universities. 

California has an opportunity right now to show the country what can be done with public money. In a state where housing costs are driving people out, it can fund new social housing. In a state where students are having to crowd into existing universities, it could build new campuses. In a state where the automobile rules, it could build more public transportation. In a state where schools crumble due to being starved by Proposition 13, it could rebuild them. In short, California can provide an example of how government can be used to benefit regular people.

It is hard for voters to think of social democracy as beneficial to them unless they see results. Otherwise, they will just be told by the other side that "wouldn't you rather have your tax money back in your pocket?" Texas likes to tout itself as an alternative to California in this regard. (Never mind that its regressive tax structure means that regular people there really don't pay lower taxes than in California.) Cheaper housing, modern schools, low tuition, efficient transportation, these are all things that would make an immediate impact.

I fear that the opportunity will be lost, that this money will be used to give gas tax rebates, build bigger highways, and give tanks and helicopters to police. The neoliberal state is okay with lavishing money, but only if it's car infrastructure and the carceral state. California has a tremendous opportunity to show another way forward. I hope they don't blow it. 

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