Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called it a fiscal emergency.
"Our economy is crying out for relief," he said. "We are running out of cash by February."
The country's biggest state soon won't have money to pay its bills - things like highway maintenance - or fund its schools or other critical services.
Californians expecting a state tax refund have been told they might get IOUs instead. State workers may be forced on unpaid furloughs, effectively cutting their pay by 10 percent.
"Ten percent is somebody's car payment, or their gas bill," said state employee Crystal Johnson. "Please stop picking on us. We do your work and we're good employees."
California may be facing the worst budget crisis, but it's not alone. Thirty-seven other states face gaping budget shortfalls this year. In Iowa, schools are taking a hit. In Kentucky, library hours have been cut. The governor of Minnesota says cuts in state services are "inevitable" to close a $5 billion state deficit.
It all should sound familiar to Schwarzenegger. He swept into office on a wave of voter discontent when his predecessor, democrat Gray Davis, failed to pass a budget. Schwarzenegger promised to fix the political impasse and cut taxes, especially the much-loathed vehicle tax, which he bid "Hasta la vista, baby," at a jubilant public ceremony.
Five years later, the deficit has mushroomed and Schwarzenegger now says new taxes are necessary - maybe even that despised car tax.
"This is a critical time in California's history," Schwarzenegger said recently. And on that, all sides can agree.