We spoke to Californians about their spending priorities for the state’s record-breaking surplus — priorities they picked while playing our 2022 budget game.
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California’s pockets are deeper than ever.
The state now has a $97.5 billion budget surplus, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced. About half of that amount is up for grabs — lawmakers will now duke it out to see their pet projects and priorities funded before a June 15 deadline. CalMatters readers can get in on the action, too, with the second edition of our budget game: How would you spend California’s surplus?
The game isn’t scientific — but it’s fun all the same. Users can alter the state’s taxing and spending according to what they care about most. Readers are tasked with using up the budget surplus while maintaining a balanced budget.
CalMatters learned a few things from last January’s submissions, when Newsom first released his budget. There were none supporting universal basic income or Medi-Cal for all. About three quarters of the 2,050 submissions supported waiting until May 2021 before greenlighting, or scrapping, another round of stimulus checks.
On the taxing side, nearly 1,000 submissions supported higher taxes on the ultra-rich. And just 21 submissions called for eliminating the state sales tax.
We checked in 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, attorney
Spending priorities: Reparations, state courts, electronic court document access
I grew up in a fairly middle-class lifestyle in Southern California, and I did not fully appreciate how easy I had it. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I really had a sense of how charmed my life was. At every point in my career, there has been a common theme where I have been involved in talking about racially restrictive covenants that have kept African-American people out of homeownership.
We’ve established systems that unfairly exclude a large part of the population. In so many cases, those are systems that we don’t think about. The train just keeps going, unless we say ‘This will stop,’ and we make meaningful investments to do things differently.
I also understand it’s human nature for many people to think that reparations mean that if you get something, then I have to give up something for you. The concept is not right.
If we lift up populations, particularly those who have been historically excluded and denied the opportunities that many of us have taken for granted — and many don’t even realize they have — doing that…lifts everyone.
Thoughts on the game: I think the game made the budget process palatable, and understandable and fun. I’m sure we all had more fun with the game than the Legislature and the governor are having right now.
Matthew Fidler, 42, Chico, public radio producer
Spending priorities: Fire prevention and ecosystem restoration
My dream, and this is not an original idea, is that they expand the California Conservation Corps. If we spent 10% of the money that 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, I lived in New York City. I came back in the summer of 2017 to all these wildfires just happening all over California from the very north to the very south.
And then my nearest neighboring town, Paradise, completely burned down. Now, there’s currently neighborhoods being built throughout the entire state that are built exactly like Paradise, that will burn. These are areas that naturally burn every five or 50 years depending on the ecosystem.
I was already kind of working on a public radio project about California fires at the time that happened, but [the Paradise fire] kind of solidified the focus of it. I just started talking to whoever would talk to me about the issue, from forest managers and park rangers to timber managers and ecologists. It blew my mind that the state keeps on doing the same thing and it’s really not solving the problem.
I feel like there’s this feeling that, ‘Oh, when humans settle an area, they tend to destroy it,’ and that humans are a cancer on the earth, but then I learned that’s actually not true at all. Native populations, indigenous populations have actually been helping the planet. The problem is people not understanding the land. It was a big moment for me, realizing that we actually can do the right thing and populations that have lived and learned areas for generations on generations can learn the right way to treat our land.
We should be maintaining these areas and so when they do burn — because they will burn — they won’t burn catastrophically. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Totally-not-scientific highlights from surplus spending game
PERSONAL INCOME TAX
|Option||Votes||% of Total|
|Keep income tax as is||1,044||50.9%|
|Tax the ultra rich||932||45.5%|
|Get rid of capital gains tax||74||3.6%|
|Get rid of income tax||0||0%|
|Option||Votes||% of Total|
|Keep working on it using cap-and-trade money only||971||47.4%|
|Stop the project||568||27.7%|
|Invest $4.2 billion more on Central Valley segment||505||24.6%|
|Drop the estimated $77 billion to complete||6||0.3%|
|Option||Votes||% of Total|
|Provide Medi-Cal to anyone who is income eligible||953||46.5%|
|Medi-Cal for any young adult 25-years old or younger, and anyone aged 50 years or older||952||46.4%|
|Get rid of Medi-Cal||144||7%|
|Medi-Cal for All based on $200 billion-a-year estimate||0||0%|
Susan Shields, 80, Santa Barbara, retired college professor
Spending priority: Financial support for families with young children
There is a lot of evidence showing that children who grow up in poverty-stricken households experience trauma. I have six children and four of them are adopted.
In the case of three of them, they grew up in really bad circumstances. So, even though we were able to give them a comfortable home, with all the amenities, and a good education, still, their lives have not been easy. It wasn’t suddenly a rose garden and suddenly everything fell into place. I have learned…that the circumstances in which a child grew up initially are with them their whole life.
I am afraid that the government, in general, doesn’t recognize the larger picture. They only look at the economic and financial situation from one year to another. When you’re talking about children, you have to look at the next 20 years because those children are growing up in circumstances that are going to determine their future.
I feel very strongly that families need both social and financial support. The situation of families with young children today is horrible. They can’t afford child care. Child care providers are not paid properly. They have an extremely difficult time keeping their businesses going. This is all counterproductive. And in the long run, in 20 years time, those children will have all kinds of problems.
Thoughts on the game: I was glad to know that there’s enough money in the budget to contemplate taking new actions and new projects.
John Robinson, 50, Pinole, Senior litigation docket specialist
Spending priority: Universal health care
When I was younger, before Covered California, before mandatory insurance, I worked as a temporary worker and I just didn’t have health care and I would have had to pay for anything out of pocket. That was just a bad experience and I just wouldn’t want people to go through that.
I just feel that we need some kind of universal health care for everyone. Even with Covered California, it’s not quite the same. This way, it would just ensure a basic bottom line health standard for everyone in California, and hopefully, that would include immigrants and undocumented people.
I feel like California is close to being on the league with that and single-payer health care is probably further along here than it is in a lot of other states, but unfortunately because of its cost — and the game really makes it 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 that it gave the public, including myself, a way to see inside the budget process that’s kind of, like, confusing and opaque.
Luna is a fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California.