"The Difference Is Education"

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And with that comment, the leader of the state Senate seemed to make it pretty clear today what's going to be at the center of budget fighting this year: funding for public schools.

Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg told Capitol reporters this afternoon that Democrats won't go along with Governor Schwarzenegger's approaches to funding schools -- either in the current fiscal year or the budget year beginning July 1.

Education has been part of, but not central to, the last few days of budget fighting, which seem likely to end with the governor vetoing more than $3 billion in legislative deficit solutions.

But two things the Senate leader said today make it clear we'll soon be talking a lot more about K-12 schools and community colleges should get... both how much they should get, and where that money should come from.

First, there's the gap the vetoes will create between the total dollar amount of 2009-2010 budget fixes wanted by Schwarzenegger versus what the Legislature sent him. It appears that the current year budget deficit will only be lowered by about $200 million, down from the governor's call for $1.2 billion.

So what accounts for the $1 billion in disputed savings? "The difference is education," said Sen. Steinberg.

And on that issue, it doesn't look like Dems are budging. Almost two weeks ago, I reported for The California Report on the fight over Schwarzenegger's request to revisit the part of last July's budget deal that set the formal certification of Proposition 98 -- i.e., the part of that budget deal that set the rules for what schools are receiving and how that money is being accounted for. Making those changes would ease the state's budget deficit by about $2.5 billion through the summer of 2011.

Today, the Senate leader declared that request dead on arrival. "We don't believe it's in the best interests of the people of California," said Steinberg, "to continue taking a sledgehammer to public education."

Nonetheless, Steinberg expressed optimistic that the $20 billion problem could be less than half that size by late spring. That optimism is predicated on as much as $3 billion in better-than-expected revenues (new data on that today), as much as $4 billion in help from the feds for things like health and social services, and -- the most rosy part of his prediction -- an eventual agreement on $4 billion in budget fixes now stuck in the aforementioned dust-up with Schwarzenegger.

But even if all of that comes to pass, lawmakers will still face a $9 billion problem. And that leads us to a second, and larger, education fight in 2010. "We can't make decisions that are counter to improving the economy," said Steinberg today. "We have cut education enough."

The crisis in education is on everyone's mind at the Capitol, especially with Monday's news of more than 22,000 pink slips being delivered to educators statewide this week.

Earlier today, the four legislative leaders of 2009 were honored by the John F. Kennedy Library with its annual 'Profiles In Courage' award for the deal that solved last year's budget crisis (only Steinberg remains in a leadership role of the three). The 2010 fight may be over a smaller amount of money, but it's likely going to take just as much courage to resolve... if not more, considering how many easy solutions have already been used.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • EarlRichards

    Why did the governor allow the budget crisis to happen in the first place?