Here we go again.

When it comes to the state budget, the only thing that seems to change is the number of billions by which it's out of balance. A year ago, state officials had to plug an unthinkable $15 billion. A few months later, as the economy worsened, they were faced with an insurmountable $40 billion.

And now, even after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislators passed a package of spending cuts and tax hikes that was believed to have tamed the deficit, the state faces a staggering $24 billion shortfall through the middle of next year.

Staples of the modern-day state - from welfare and health care for the poor to funding for our children's education - are on the chopping block.

State Controller John Chiang has implored the Legislature to pass a budget by Monday to avoid a fiscal meltdown this summer. But legislators are expected to miss that deadline by at least a few weeks.

Of course, California isn't alone; governments across the country are grappling with the deepest recession since the Great Depression. But in some ways, the state's woes are self-inflicted: Our fortunes rest with a system that produces huge tax windfalls when the economy flourishes, then acts as if the good times will never end.

Today, we take a crack at demystifying the state budget. The goal: to help you understand how we got into the current fix and why Sacramento has become so dysfunctional when it comes to managing the state's finances.

Contact Mike Zapler at mzapler@mercurynews.com or 916-441-4603.