Brown's Budget: Good Start. How Will It Finish?

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KQED/John Myers

Governor Jerry Brown racked up probably his last seal of approval today for the kickoff campaign in support of his budget proposal, a campaign that's shaping up more like a race.

And like any good race, what's much tougher is the hard slog from here on out... and whether you can make it across the finish line.

Today's tail wind out of the starting blocks came courtesy of a new report from the Legislature's non-partisan budget crunchers.

"Our basic conclusion is that the governor's proposal is a very good starting point," said Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor in a chat with budget reporters this afternoon. "We think it has several positive aspects."

Among those, said Taylor: Brown's projection of the problem ($25.4 billion over the next 18 months), the fact that the governor's plan has solutions that would last beyond the coming year and would therefore ease the systemic woes for the near future, and its "bold" ideas for restructuring the state/local government relationship.

Those plaudits stand in contrast to recent state budgets that often have twisted their way around the core problem of revenues and expenses. "I think it is a more straightforward budget," said Taylor.

But lest anyone in the Guv's office start to cheer, the LAO report raises several issues that need to be carefully thought out before all is said and done. Those issues also provide a preview of the hurdles that lie ahead.

A lot of those hurdles involve the decidedly polarized politics surrounding the budget process, ones that can't be cleared simply by Brown's promised focus on consensus.

For starters, today's report points out that some of these same spending reduction proposals have been rejected by the Legislature before -- most notably, the governor's cuts in health care for the poor (Medi-Cal), a reduction being counted on for $1.7 billion in savings. (Medi-Cal cuts could also be subject to another round of legal challenges.) The other big savings, a $1.5 billion cut in the CalWorks program may raise a different question, says the LAO: if the program is supposed to be a safety net for families trying to get back on their feet, will there actually be a net left in place with Brown's cut?

A similar concern is raised in the report about the governor's proposed 35% cut in child care subsidies, a cut the LAO says would raise questions about whether any quality child care options would even be available at such low provider rates.

These are some of the key issues that Democrats will be asking about. So far, they've bitten their collective tongue in avoiding criticism of Brown. Tomorrow, budget committees in both houses will start dissecting the plan... and those tongues may start to wag.

Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor (KQED/John Myers)

Republicans in the statehouse have, so far, focused their comments on the size of the cuts and the burden that rests on Democrats as the majority party. Legislative Analyst Taylor acknowledged today that calculating the governor's "cuts" at $12 billion may be disputed by some, given that number includes a few billion dollars of "savings" that aren't necessarily achieved through cutting programs but rather by replacing general fund dollars with other dollars being swapped, moved, etc.

As for how the budget moves forward, GOP legislators have been quoted this week as saying that the November ballot measure allowing a majority vote budget means they're not the ones who need to do the heavy lifting. But the LAO report says that a 'normal' budget process -- with the enacting language for a budget to be placed inside accompanying 'trailer' bills -- would require a supermajority vote. The governor said Monday that's what he's shooting for, too. But should Republicans refuse to go along, Legislative Analyst Taylor agreed that there are procedures -- bills passed in a special session, trailer bills including actual appropriations -- that would allow a simple majority vote. Of course, Republicans could then decry the maneuver as parliamentary trickery. Either path Governor Brown chooses, it seems, will be tricky.

There are policy and legal hurdles, too. The LAO report suggests that the governor's attempt to use Proposition 63 (millionaire's tax for mental health) dollars to cover some local mental health costs under his broad state/local realignment may not be permissible without a vote of the people. And speaking of realignment, there's the complicated issue of whether the state's hundreds of redevelopment agencies can be shut down and the money redirected, given recent voter-approved bans on swiping local government dollars and the size of the undertaking being mulled.

"It's a pretty difficult thing," said analyst Taylor this afternoon.

And finally, the big question that may overshadow everything: the clock. Governor Brown's self-imposed deadline of March for legislative agreement on a budget plan and a special budget ballot sets the bar pretty high on those hurdles.

Or as Mac Taylor put it: "People need to realize that there is a lot of work to do in a very short time."

Indeed.

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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.
  • Great2b

    Much fraud in the welfare system, governor has no idea. CA is breeding welfare clients. Lets stop rewarding Mary who ‘claims’ to be a single mom with 5 kids & 1 on the way; she receives welfare, medi-cal, food stamps and section 8. Cutting social services to fix CA budget is the only solution.

  • hello

    What we need to change first–before we can arrive at a solution–is the way we conduct the debate. Take the comment above about fraud in the welfare system. Does it exist? I am sure it does. However, I am also certain about one other thing: the person writing the comment above does not rely on public assitance (meaning that cutting public assitance will not directly impact him/her). And to dig ourselves out of this hole we all have to accept cuts and taxes that will directly impact us. The pain has to be felt by all so we can begin to heal after tearing off the bandaid. If we refuse that, we will all go over the cliff together.

  • Dee Veras

    Great2b: You are on right track. The most wide ranging good could be done for both the budget and the environment by limiting what welfare mothers could spend taxpayer money on such as disposable diapers that cost taxpayers a fortune and add to toxic waste. If careless, clueless teens knew they would have to wash diapers (almost everyone has access to washers and dryers nowadays) it would cause most of them who still “think” to avoid careless pregnancies. Not too long ago, a mother would prepare or buy a set of washable cloth diapers and inexpensive flushable thin liners were available to catch the solids at a fraction of the cost of whole disposables. And seriously relieve the toxic waste in dumps all over.

  • hello

    OK, let’s say we took care of waste, fraud and abuse tomorrow. That’s probably (and this is an optimistic estimate) 5% of the deficit. That does rather leave the other 95% to be dealt with. Hence, my original question: what are you willing to pay and/or sacrifice to get California back on track? It is always easy to get the other guy (be the other guy a millionaire or a Mom on food stamps) to pay your bills. But you know, they are still your bills. Your bills and mine. So maybe we should all pay them–for a change.