CalMatters readers on spending California’s budget surplus

We spoke to Californians about their spending priorities for the state’s record surplus — priorities they picked during our 2022 budget game.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — This story was originally published by CalMatters.

California’s pockets are deeper than ever.

The state now has a budget surplus of $97.5 billion, Governor Gavin Newsom recently announced. About half of that amount is up for grabs – lawmakers will now fight to see their favorite projects and priorities funded before the June 15 deadline. CalMatters readers can also get in on the action with the second edition of our budget quiz: How Would You Spend California’s Surplus?

The game isn’t scientific – but it’s fun all the same. Users can tweak state taxes and spending based on what matters most to them. Readers are instructed to use the budget surplus while maintaining a balanced budget.

CalMatters learned a few things from submissions last January, when Newsom first released its budget. There were none that supported Universal Basic Income or Medi-Cal for All. About three-quarters of the 2,050 submissions backed waiting until May 2021 before giving the go-ahead or scrapping another round of stimulus checks.

On the tax side, nearly 1,000 submissions backed higher taxes on the ultra-rich. And only 21 submissions called for the elimination of the state sales tax.

We checked with several readers who played the game last year. Here are their spending plans, in their own words.

(Comments have been edited for length and clarity)

Lexi Purich Howard, 55, Sacramento, lawyer

Spending priorities: Reparations, state courts, electronic access to court documents

I grew up in a fairly middle-class Southern California lifestyle and didn’t fully appreciate how easy it was. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I truly understood how enchanted my life was. At every stage of my career, there has been a common theme where I have been involved in discussing racial covenants that have kept African Americans out of home ownership.

We have systems in place that unfairly exclude a large portion of the population. In many cases, these are systems that we don’t think about. The train keeps rolling, unless we say, “It’s going to stop,” and we’re making significant investments to do things differently.

I also understand that it’s human nature for a lot of people to think that reparations means that if you get something, then I have to give something up for you. The concept is not right.

If we uplift people, especially those who have been historically excluded and deprived of the opportunities that many of us took for granted – and many don’t even realize we did – that…uplifts everyone.

Thoughts on the game: I think the game made the budget process acceptable, understandable, and fun. I’m sure we’ve all had more fun with the game than the Legislative Assembly and the Governor are having right now.

Matthew Fidler, 42, Chico, public radio producer

Spending priorities: Fire prevention and ecosystem restoration

My dream, and it’s not an original idea, is that they expand the California Conservation Corps. If we spent 10% of the money we spend on firefighting on fire prevention and ecosystem restoration, we could have solved this problem 20 years ago.

I was born and raised in California, and between 2013 and 2017 lived in New York. I came back in the summer of 2017 to all those wildfires that were happening all over California from north to south.

And then my nearest neighboring town, Paradise, burned down completely. Now, there are currently neighborhoods under construction across the state that are being built just like paradise, that will burn. These are areas that naturally burn every five or 50 years depending on the ecosystem.

I was kind of already working on a public radio project about the fires in California at the time this happened, but [the Paradise fire] kind of solidified the focus of it. I just started talking to anyone who wanted to talk to me about the issue, from forest managers and rangers to timber managers and environmentalists. It blew my mind that the state keeps doing the same thing and it really doesn’t solve the problem.

I feel like there’s this feeling that “Oh, when humans move into an area, they tend to destroy it”, and humans are cancer on the earth, but then I learned that this was actually not true at all. Indigenous people, indigenous people actually helped the planet. The problem is that people don’t understand the earth. It was a great moment for me, realizing that we can actually do the right thing and that people who have lived and learned from the areas for generations can learn the right way to treat our land.

We should maintain these areas so that when they burn — because they burn — they don’t burn catastrophically. An ounce of prevention is better than cure.

Susan Shields, 80, Santa Barbara, retired college professor

Spending priority: Financial support for families with young children

There is ample evidence that children growing up in poor homes experience trauma. I have six children and four of them are adopted.

In the case of three of them, they grew up in very poor conditions. So, even though we were able to provide them with comfortable accommodation, with all amenities and a good education, their life was not easy. Suddenly it wasn’t a rose garden and suddenly everything fell into place. I have learned…that the circumstances in which a child initially grows up are with him all his life.

I fear that the government, in general, does not recognize the big picture. They only look at the economic and financial situation from one year to the next. When we talk about children, we have to look at the next 20 years because these children are growing up in circumstances that will determine their future.

I am convinced that families need both social and financial support. The situation of families with young children today is horrific. They cannot afford to have their children looked after. Child care providers are not paid properly. They have a hard time running their business. All of this is counterproductive. And in the long run, in 20 years, these children will have all kinds of problems.

Thoughts on the game: I was happy to know that there was enough money in the budget to consider new actions and new projects.

John Robinson, 50, Pinole, Senior Litigation Specialist

Spend priority: Universal health care

When I was younger, before Covered California, before compulsory insurance, I worked as a temp worker and I just didn’t have health care and I would have had to pay for anything out of pocket. It was just a bad experience and I wouldn’t want people to go through that.

I just think we need some sort of universal health care for everyone. Even with Covered California, it’s not quite the same. That way it would just ensure a basic standard of health for everyone in California and hopefully that would include immigrants and undocumented people.

I feel like California is about to be in league with this and single-payer health care is probably more advanced here than many other states, but unfortunately because of the cost – and the game makes it really clear – it’s just impossible to do. No matter how much you increase the budget, you just can’t pay for it.

Thoughts on the game: I thought it gave the public, myself included, a way to see inside the budget process which is a bit confusing and opaque.

Luna is a member of the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists across California.

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