Gonna Budget Like It's 1999

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Party over, oops, out of time! So tonight we're gonna party like it's 1999. -- Prince

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger suggested dusting off the script of a movie he wasn't in today, Back To The Future, in telling reporters that the state budget should match its anemic revenues -- now about where they were a decade ago.

"We have to do drastic measures," said the governor. "And we have to recognize that we have to dial back to what was happening in 1999."

He then went on to talk about eliminating programs that have been created, or that have grown, since the year Napster debuted and Boris Yeltsin resigned.

You can hear the full remark by clicking below.

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So let's take the governor up on his idea and dust off the state's official expenditures in 1999.

The excercise is slightly complicated by the fact that the calendar year actually is split into two fiscal years (1998-1999 and 1999-2000). Let's be generous and use the latter, seeing as its revenues -- according to official data compiled by the office of the state controller -- were $71.5 billion. The governor said he believes that most of the current deficit is in the year that begins July 1, which would mean revenues might, in fact, be around $70 billion. So we've got a reasonable match.

So what did California spend its 1999 bucks on?

The record shows general fund expenses of $66.1 billion. Below are some key government services with 1999 spending levels first... and the governor's May revised budget for 2009-10 second.

K-12 Education
Then -- $26.3 billion / Now -- $36.6 billion
Corrections -- $4.4 billion / Now -- $9.6 billion
Higher Education -- $7.7 billion / Now -- $11 billion

[Note: some of the numbers above are estimates pieced together with the February budget and the list of May spending reductions, as documents released to the press were thin on details]

At first blush, it would look like 1999 spending would mean severe cuts. But it's only fair to determine the effect of inflation (how much money you'd need now to buy what in 1999 cost $1, for example).

Using an online calculator shows that the above 1999 figure for K-12 education spending in the general fund -- $26.3 billion -- would now translate into $33.7 billion. That would be a $3 billion reduction in public school funding beyond what Schwarzenegger proposed last week. Corrections, accounting for inflation, would be $5.6 billion -- a $4 billion cut from what the guv is currently endorsing.

Perhaps the governor was just using the final year of the 1990s in broad, comparative purposes of revenues. Fair enough. But when you start looking at expenses, that kind of "dial back" would be radical, at least in Capitol circles.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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