Remember when New York City, the financial capital of the world, was as down-and-out as a drifter sleeping on a park bench?
Well, says California Controller Ken Cory, the richest state in the Union ''could end up like New York City.''
Mr. Cory is the official who has to pay California's bills. After comparing the state's bank balance with its debts, he says he will have to issue $400 million in ''registered warrants'' - IOUs to lenders who will have to be paid back in 90 days with about 5 percent interest - to pay current debts to state workers and creditors.
The problem was not unforeseen when the Legislature in July approved a $25.2 billion fiscal 1983 budget. Everyone - including Gov. Edumund G. Brown Jr. and the legislators - knew then that the balance between anticipated revenue and expenditures, required by the state constitution, was a fiscal fantasy. What they did not foresee was that the gap between income and outgo would be so wide. While cost of programs supported at the state level were $123 million over estimates in the first quarter of the fiscal year (July through September), revenues for the same period were $106 million below projections.
Cory projects the deficit for the current fiscal year at $1 billion to $1.2 billion - and for fiscal 1984 at up to $3 billion - unless something is done to bring expenditures and revenue into better balance.
Recession is the major culprit - the same one responsible for shortfalls in many other states. But California's situation is doubly complicated by the continuing repercussions of Proposition 13. The tax-cutting spirit that spawned the landmark initiative continues strong in this state.
It's a familiar story to Californians, but state officials like Cory worry that most citizens just don't seem to have grasped the story's moral: You cannot have your cake and eat it, too.
The Jarvis-Gann property tax-slashing Prop. 13 of 1978 was overwhelmingly supported by voters who knew the state government had a surplus of some $8 billion. Why not give homeowners and others a break and let the state pay more of the cost of local education and other programs? The state did so, and in three years the surplus had disappeared.
During the same period, the national economy lost steam. California, which resisted the downward trend longer than most states, has nevertheless seen its revenues from sales, income, and other taxes dip sharply - especially since mid- 1981. And the state has had to absorb income tax and other cuts voted by Californians in recent referendums.
Meanwhile, what controller Cory calls the state's ''quality of life'' - including one of the world's great road systems, tuition-free higher education, magnificent recreational sites and programs, the most generous medicare program in the US, and other features - has been maintained so far, albeit with some relatively painful cuts.
Now the problem appears to have reached the stage at which neither administrative expediency nor legislative legerdemain can postpone a reckoning. Few doubt that both tax hikes and further program cuts are inevitable. There is strong sentiment for a special legislative session to at least provide some stopgap relief. But Cory warns that an inconclusive or even acrimonious session - featuring a Democratic majority that cannot act without at least some Republican cooperation, and a lame-duck Democratic governor - might damage the state's credit standing.
In January GOP Gov.-elect George Deukmejian will take office - and face the challenge of working with a strengthened Democratic majority in the Legislature. Perhaps more significant, Mr. Deukmejian will be a governor pledged not to approve any new or higher state taxes - a pledge he has reiterated in the face of the looming deficit.
That would seem to leave only program cutting - especially local education aid, welfare and Medi-Cal, and aid to counties. Counties have cut personnel and programs to what most claim is the minimum, and Republican legislators have been adamant against cutting aid to local school districts.
Deukmejian, like President Reagan, seems likely to have to find some way around his no-tax pledge.
Meanwhile, Cory points out that a one-cent hike in the state's six-cent sales tax would net $1.6 billion in the remaining seven months of this fiscal year. That action, with ''some budget cuts,'' might do the job.
Another suggestion: A 10 percent tax on videogame receipts (at 25 cents per play) would bring in $83.2 million between now and July.
Even if there is a strong economic recovery in coming months, California will have to make major fiscal changes in order to adjust imbalances created by the tax cuts and shifting of budget responsibilities since 1978.