Roy Bell, who was Jerry Brown’s first budget director 43 years ago, called it a “dog-and-pony show” and it’s one of the Capitol’s longest-running rituals.
Each January, usually on the 10th, journalists who cover the Capitol file into a first-floor room dedicated to news conferences and settle into fiberglass swivel chairs that would command high prices at an auction of mid-century modern furniture.
Thereupon, the governor and his finance director reveal a proposed state budget for the fiscal year that would begin six months hence. Brown’s first budget for the 1975-76 fiscal year was quite modest by contemporary standards, $11.5 billion, and was contained in a thick sheaf of loose leaf pages bound with brown shoelaces.
On Wednesday, Brown proposed the 16th and final budget of his record-long gubernatorial career – two eight-year stints separated by 28 years of doing other things – aided by his current budget director, Michael Cohen, who was a toddler in 1975. It totals $190.3 billion, more than 16 times Brown’s first – but according to historic data maintained by Cohen’s staff, would spend roughly the same percentage of Californians’ personal income as it did 43 years ago, a bit less than 8 percent.
That remarkably stable number underlies one of the budget’s political axioms: Most of it is on autopilot, governed by statutory formulas, constitutional law (especially school spending), federal aid and other immutable factors. Therefore, the annual political wrangling over the budget involves only its relatively tiny margins.