In the corporate world, a publicly owned business that knowingly hid the true intent of a massive spending provision from shareholders and regulators would be subject to a Securities and Exchange Commission inquiry and face lawsuits from outraged investors. But in the California state government — despite voter-enacted laws demanding openness in decision-making — there are no such negative consequences to fear. This week, two news accounts helped illustrate the irresponsibility of just such a maneuver last year in Sacramento.
On Monday, state officials reported revenue for the current fiscal year was on track to be $5 billion — and perhaps as much as $25 billion — short of spring forecasts. Given how dependent the state treasury is on capital gains taxes — and given Wall Street’s recent doldrums — this was no surprise. The revenue roller coaster is part of life in California and should lead to frugality even when times are flush.
But as detailed in a new CalMatters column by Dan Walters, there was a lack of it in June 2021. He noted that as last-minute state budget negotiations were wrapping up last year, $279.5 million was included for the Port of Oakland to fund “improvements that facilitate enhanced freight and passenger access and to promote the efficient and safe movement of goods and people.” Given concerns about the condition of many state ports — and their crucial importance to the state’s economy — this seemed unremarkable at the time. Instead, as Walters noted, the port subsequently moved to use the funds to help subsidize a new stadium for the Oakland A’s on port property. The aid was sought by billionaire A’s owner John Fisher and Oakland officials and pushed through by Senate Budget Committee Chair Nancy Skinner, D-Oakland.
For the most part, state lawmakers used to grasp that it was wrong to divert public funds to the tycoons who own sports teams — unlike many officials in local cities and to some extent the federal government. Yet with Oakland still stinging over the departure of the Golden State Warriors for San Francisco and the Raiders for Las Vegas, its civic pride can be seen as having triumphed over the more pressing — and legitimate — needs of Californians. Former Controller Steve Westly and others warn the state could be on the brink of a deep recession, with the potential to wipe out the state’s rainy-day fund. If that happens, the $279.5 million the Legislature slipped a billionaire will look worse than ever. That money could have been used — should have been used — to help feed and house hurting Californians.