Like someone deeply in debt who just received an inheritance, state lawmakers must now decide whether to pay off their bills or recklessly start buying more things.
Approval of Proposition 30 was not a signal to ramp up spending. Instead, voters signed on because they were promised the money would be used was to stave off deeper cuts to education and pay off the debts from past budget shortfalls. That must be carried out.
But we worry that Democrats' expected new two-thirds majority in the Assembly and Senate will embolden them to please their labor backers, who bankroll their campaigns, at the expense of long-term fiscal stability.
We've seen shortsighted spending before, especially during Gray Davis' gubernatorial reign. We have more, but not absolute, confidence that Gov. Jerry Brown will act more responsibly. Brown deserves great credit for his focused campaigning to win passage of the initiative. Now he must be equally insistent that lawmakers respect the voters' mandate.
There's a lot at stake. Prop. 30's quarter-cent sales tax increase will last for just four years; the income tax hike on upper-income earners for seven. That's the window of opportunity, a chance to pay off most of $34 billion of liabilities and payment deferrals -- a debt built up during a decade of borrowing and one-time gimmicks used to cobble together budgets year after year.
The annual smoke and mirrors must end. If Brown wants to leave a legacy, this is his opportunity. Stabilizing the state budget for future generations would be far more meaningful than attempting to build a misguided bullet train through the Central Valley.
As the credit-rating agency Standard & Poor's concluded the day after the election, Prop. 30's passage "presents an opportunity for policymakers to pursue fundamental reforms to the state's fiscal problems." But if they fail to do so, "the state could simply face a new structural budget gap when the temporary taxes expire."
Whether the Legislature can rise to the challenge remains uncertain. They will have to make more tough choices, and abandon hopes of resurrecting most of the programs that have been trimmed in recent years.
We're pleased that Brown has reaffirmed his commitment to no more new taxes without approval of the voters. He has lived up to that campaign promise for two years now. But legislators, with their new two-thirds majority, could theoretically pass additional tax increases and override a gubernatorial veto.
That, of course, would require that Democrats blindly fall in line behind their leadership. Unfortunately, that's what they've often done in the past. But it's more politically risky now. They should remember that, under the new open-primary election rules, fiscally irresponsible legislators are vulnerable to election challenges from more pragmatic candidates of their own party.
Rather than try to push the envelope, legislators would best serve their constituents by working with Brown to provide the state with permanent budget stability. We hope they will rise to the challenge.