State Spending Reflects Californians’ Priorities

Public opinion polling shows that Californians strongly support state spending for education and health and human services, but are less enthusiastic about spending on state prisons, also known as corrections. Solid majorities of the state’s residents, for example, say they are willing to pay higher taxes to support public schools, higher education, and health and human services in order to help close the budget gap, according to a survey conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California in May. In contrast, only about one out of six Californians (17 percent) said they would pay higher taxes to support prisons.

The 2012-13 spending plan signed into law by Governor Brown last month reflects – for the most part – these priorities. More than 50 cents out of every General Fund dollar supports public schools, colleges, and universities, and nearly 30 cents out of every dollar goes to health and human services, including health care and cash assistance for low-income children and seniors. In other words, well over three-quarters of the state budget, roughly 81 cents out of every state dollar, goes to areas that Californians say are their top priorities.

The share of state spending allocated to corrections – just under 10 cents out of every state dollar in 2012-13 – is down compared to 2010-11, but remains higher than many Californians might prefer. Prisons’ share of the state budget, however, is projected to drop further in the coming years, to less than 8 cents out of every state dollar. This decline is due to the recent transfer, or “”realignment,” of responsibility for low-level offenders from the state to the counties, which has begun to shrink the prison population and to move the state toward compliance with a US Supreme Court order to reduce prison overcrowding.

While rarely addressed in public opinion surveys, the remainder of the budget – roughly 9 cents out of every state dollar in 2012-13 – supports veterans services, wildland fire control, environmental protection, and other key public services. This part of the budget also funds the institutions that comprise the state’s system of governance, such as the courts, the Department of Justice, and the Governor’s Office.

Overall, state spending tracks closely with Californians’ priorities and supports the key public structures and services that are necessary for a strong economy and a high quality of life.

— Scott Graves