Looking Back at the Last Five Years — and Looking Forward

Five years ago this fall — in October 2012 — I joined the Budget Center as its executive director. I have been honored to serve in this role, and I am excited about the organization’s, and California’s, future.

Over the past year in particular, I have been reminded of why our work at the Budget Center — engaging in independent analysis intended to improve public policies affecting the economic and social well-being of low- and middle-income Californians — is so fundamentally important. The federal proposals we have been confronting would have huge and negative repercussions for millions of Californians and for the fiscal health of our state. In response, we must combat bad policy proposals through research and analysis, commentary, facts, stories, and clear examples of what those proposals would mean for Californians.

While the national policy environment presents many challenges, I am deeply grateful to have the privilege and opportunity of leading an organization that is bold in its independence, rigorous in its research, and committed to ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to participate fully in the state’s economic, social, and political life.

So, how are we doing?

As I pause to reflect on the past five years, this is a question I often find myself asking. One of my favorite responses to that question, which I first heard from a long-time city leader, is short and to the point:

“Working hard. Catching hell. Making progress.”

I love that response because it so succinctly captures what goes into making social change and, ultimately, it naturally leads to another question: How are we making progress?

To answer this, we need to remember where we were five years ago, both as a state and at the Budget Center.

Autumn 2012 was a time of considerable unknowns and angst in California. The Great Recession had ravaged the state’s finances. State leaders were forced to respond by cutting many vital public services to the bone. October 2012 was a particularly pivotal moment, with voters in the final weeks of considering two competing ballot measures that would increase taxes in order to boost investment in K-12 education and other areas. In November, with the backing of Governor Brown and a broad coalition of advocates and champions across the state, Proposition 30 won voter approval. This measure increased income tax rates on the state’s wealthiest households, staving off billions in retroactive cuts to education and helping to shore up the state’s annual finances with significant new revenues.

It was amid this political and fiscal turning point for California that I was fortunate to take the helm at a strong and stable organization — but one that was similarly in a state of transition.

As I reflect on the past five years, I am extremely pleased to say that we have made great progress as a state and here at the Budget Center.

Making Progress in California

Thanks to a combination of effective state leaders and a robust community of advocates, organizers, and local officials, California has made significant strides in improving outcomes for low- and middle-income individuals and families. Notable policy advances have included: enacting and expanding the state’s first-ever Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC); raising the state minimum wage and improving family leave policies; increasing funding for education systems generally, while also reforming the K-12 education finance system so that a greater share of funding is provided to educate disadvantaged students; starting to reinvest in state child care and preschool systems; wholly embracing implementation of the Affordable Care Act and expanding health care coverage to 4 million additional Californians (thereby reducing our state’s uninsured rate from nearly 19 percent to just over 7 percent); reforming criminal justice systems and reducing incarceration levels; enacting the Secure Choice retirement savings program for workers who do not receive a retirement option through their employers; increasing funding for state and local transportation projects; and, most recently, enacting a package of housing legislation designed to help address the state’s housing affordability crisis.

Alongside these and other areas of progress, the state maintained and improved its fiscal health, in many cases with the approval of California voters. This has included extending Prop. 30’s income tax rate increases; creating and building up a new state rainy day fund; putting in place a series of reforms to help more sustainably fund state retirement systems (with admittedly more work to do), and paying off shorter-term budgetary debt incurred during prior fiscal crises.

These are all important advances that benefit individuals, families, and communities across our state, and I am proud that the Budget Center has contributed to these successes in various ways. And, at the same time that we have clearly made great progress as a state these last five years, I am pleased that we have also made great progress here at the Budget Center.

Making Progress at the Budget Center

Over the last five years, we have sought to build upon a solid foundation for making our work timely, relevant, and compelling.

We have built a first-rate Budget Center staff that I would put up “pound-for-pound” against any state- or national-level think tank in the country in terms of policy expertise, experience and training, and commitment. We also set a goal of lifting up the many voices and faces of the Budget Center. We want you to know, work with, and rely upon all members of our team. I am very pleased to often represent the Budget Center, but the vast majority of the work that we share is the product of a team of people for whom I have tremendous admiration and respect and who I thoroughly enjoy working with every day.

We are building a stellar Board of Directors. Since 2012, we have added eight new and esteemed members to an already deep bench. I hope that when you see our Board list you agree that it represents an all-star lineup of the state’s leaders on fiscal policy as well as on the best ways to improve the lives low- and middle-income Californians.

As important as these internal advances are, what I hope has been most visible and meaningful to all of you — our readers, users, followers, partners, and allies — is the progress we have made in improving the timeliness and responsiveness of our work, the ways that we share our information and analysis with you, and our readiness to engage with as many communities, networks, and individuals as possible to ensure that we are maximizing our impact and influence.

In early 2015, we marked our 20th anniversary with an entirely new “brand” — a revised name, a new tagline, and a new visual identity that together evoke how we are a center of budget, policy, and economic expertise; a center of information and analysis; a center of training, education, and convening; and a center of ideas for how to create a better future for California’s individuals, families, and communities.

As part of this rebranding, we launched a new website along with a new suite of communications capacities, representing a fundamental reorganization and repackaging of our data presentation and communications. The aim was to make our analysis and commentary easier to find, understand, use, and share, so that you can better obtain information on the issues you care about. All of our metrics — and more importantly, the stories and reports from you our readers, users, and followers — point to overwhelmingly positive results.

Our enhanced online efforts have gone hand-in-hand with a significant push toward being more active partners, collaborators, and participants in networks across California. While we are a relatively small team working to cover a very large state, we will continue to make every effort to work with you and your organization to ensure that you and your partners and allies have the information and insights you need to be deeply engaged with state and local policy debates.

Look for continued advances from us in the months ahead, including new data visualization tools, more localization of our analysis, and more events, webinars, and webcasts that allow us to expand our statewide reach.

As we continue to build on the progress described above, we have set some new goalposts for the Budget Center for the coming year. These include developing a more robust and targeted outreach and influence strategy, as well as crafting a proactive and forward-looking economic and fiscal policy agenda that is focused on households, families, and workers as the core sources of California’s growth.

At the same time — and especially important in the current policy environment — we will continue to address federal policy issues and what emerging federal proposals could mean for California. On the heels of last November’s election, we pivoted quickly to making federal policy proposals a major priority in our work. We did so out of necessity, as the proposals and plans emerging from President Trump and congressional leadership present the most significant threats to the well-being of Californians, and to the fiscal health of our state, since the Great Recession.

I should underscore that this is not a partisan statement. It is simply a matter of good and bad public policy and, in many instances, basic issues of right and wrong. Seeking to take away health care from 20 million Americans and 4 million Californians isn’t just bad policy — it is fundamentally the wrong choice economically and socially. The emerging tax and budget proposals in Congress would result in a massive redistribution of wealth to the top 1 percent of households (in many cases to the top one-tenth of 1 percent), paid for in part by severe cuts to vital public services that help low- and middle-income households make ends meet and advance economically. These are bad choices that threaten to take our nation in the wrong direction, economically and socially. But California has the opportunity to lead. We can pursue a different path, even amid federal proposals that will seek to impede our progress, and provide a national model of better policymaking. All of us at the Budget Center look forward to playing a part in California rising to this challenge.

“A Pocket of Greatness”

As part of my reflecting on the Budget Center’s recent progress and what lies ahead, I recently took a few moments to flip back through Jim Collins’ Good to Great and the Social Sectors (This is, admittedly, the only piece of management literature I’ve ever had the patience to read, probably because it’s only 30 pages long.) Collins’ basic premise is that we can create “pockets of greatness” in the social sectors by focusing on “getting the right people on the bus” (staff, boards, partners, etc.) and “turning the flywheel” (building momentum by building our brand). I believe that the progress the Budget Center has made does follow this playbook to some extent, and I hope that you think of us as a pocket of greatness in California.

I also believe that the Budget Center is poised for growth — you could say the flywheel is turning. In my tenure at the Budget Center, I have encountered a common refrain across the state: that the Budget Center significantly “punches above its weight.” I am always flattered and invigorated by this and similar comments — flattered by the recognition of our relative reach and influence for the size of our organization and invigorated by the possibilities for growth. But, let me be clear:  the Budget Center would still punch above its weight even if it was a much larger organization. California is a big state and one that is confronting a number of enormous economic challenges and opportunities. There is certainly more progress that needs to be made in broadening prosperity and ensuring the state’s economic gains benefit low- and middle-income Californians.

So, my challenge for the years ahead, to our staff, and to our Board — and to you, our partners, collaborators, readers, users, followers, funders, supporters, etc. — is to help us get there. I promise you that we will protect our core work and make additional progress, that we will continue to punch above our weight, and that through changes and opportunity still to come we will continue seeking to be more compelling, to make our work even more relevant and accessible, and to have a greater impact.

— Chris Hoene