Surprise! The New State Budget

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"We are in a box," said Gov. Brown of the state's budget woes. (Photo: KQED/John Myers)

The unveiling of a governor's state budget every January is an annual, and well rehearsed, ritual: budget decisions are made in late December, budget goes to the printer, gubernatorial staffers privately brief some stakeholder groups (some who leak to the press), governor calls a news conference.

Yeah. So much for the playbook. On Thursday afternoon, after a copy of his proposal somehow was uploaded to a state website (oops), Governor Jerry Brown quickly summoned reporters and offered up the entire 2012-13 blueprint -- one that pegs the deficit at $9.2 billion and includes some major changes and cuts to health and human services.

"The California government is under stress," said Brown in his Capitol Q&A with reporters. "We're spending, in real terms, what we were in the 70s, under Ronald Reagan. So we're doing the best we can and it is a hardship."

The $137.3 billion spending plan offers yet more controversial spending cuts, but ones that appear to be rooted in some actual retooling of existing state government practices -- perhaps a sign that Brown knows that the system, as it exists, doesn't give him as many options.

Tops on that 'retooling' list would be the welfare-to-work program CalWorks. Brown proposes to cut $1.4 billion out of the program by reducing the assistance to families that fail to meet federal work requirements. In many cases, that's a cut from four years of eligibility for benefits down to two years.

Meantime, the budget seeks an outright repeal of some state mandates on local government, a savings of $828 million. Many of these mandates, from rules about abandoned pets in animal shelters to government meeting notices, have been suspended in recent years... necessary, because the state constitution says if locals are forced to do certain things, Sacramento needs to reimburse for it.

Other notable cuts include less spending on Medi-cal through new efforts at managed care alternatives for some 1.2 million patients; a 17% cut in available slots for subsidized child care; a $1 billion cut in prison spending, largely being attributed to the realignment of offenders to county jails.

The governor is also pushing changes -- i.e., fewer rules -- on state tax dollars spent on public schools. And he couches it all in the language of his desire to shift power to the local level.

"Let a thousand flowers bloom," said Brown in a paraphrase of Chairman Mao. "Let Kern County be Kernites, and let Modocians be Modocians, and let the San Francisco school district do what they do."

And yes, Brown's budget includes the promised new round of 'trigger cuts,' cuts that would automatically go into effect if his $7 billion tax initiative is rejected by voters on November 6.

Of the $5.4 billion in proposed trigger cuts, almost all are to education (with a few to the courts and CalFire thrown in for good measure). Most prominent is a $4.8 billion reduction in Proposition 98 guaranteed funding, which Brown's advisers say translates into a school year shortened by a whopping three weeks. The CSU and UC systems would also face new cuts should the tax package fail.

Brown is cognizant of accusations that the trigger list is equivalent to a threat to voters (the so-called "Washington Monument" strategy).

The governor's budget director, Ana Matasantos, says it's not that kind of ploy, because school funding represents the big dollars in the budget... and there's no other way to go if voters reject the taxes.

No governor's budget lands in the lap of the Legislature and is instantly praised and ratified, and neither will this one. Republicans, even in the post-Prop 25 world of budgets, will still be needed... because Brown proposes an extension of a fee on managed care plans to help fund health care for kids in low-income families. And that's a two-thirds vote. GOP legislators again called the budget full of one-time fixes, and urged more structural reforms.

Democrats, though, are where the real action is... and the leader of the state Senate seemed to throw some cold water on the prospect for fast action on the plan.

"When the governor proposes more cuts," said Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, "I'm very wary of that."

Steinberg said he doesn't support any cuts until spring tax revenues are counted. But that's a problem; the governor's proposal for cutting and revising the CalWorks program needs legislative enactment by March 1. If that doesn't happen, then he and his fellow Dems will have to start looking elsewhere.

And on the CalWorks cuts, expect some serious debate about the wisdom of another huge cut to a program that's already been cut a lot in recent years. Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California, says the governor's demand for stricter work requirements -- or else only 24 months of assistance for families -- comes at the same time where there already aren't enough jobs in general.

"24 months just isn't long enough," said Mecca.

There's a lot that has to happen from here. But for now, we've seen the proposal... it ain't pretty... and it's going to take a lot of negotiating, and even arm twisting, both at the state Capitol and -- as the tax campaign heats up -- around the state.

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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.
  • Robert Emery

    Meanwhile Renewable Energy rebates, tax credits, property tax exemptions, sales and use tax exclusions continue as our children receive a third world education.

  • Steven Maviglio

    Imagine, for a minute, Arnold Schwarzenegger being told he would have to go present the budget in an hour to the capitol press corps, days before he was supposed to. He wouldn’t have had a clue. Jerry showed his smarts today.

  • Mike

    The irony in paraphrasing Chairman Mao as a metaphor for a policy of shifting “power to the local level”.

  • Ringer

    So the actual government doesn’t take a cut? Any government workers lose their jobs or take any kind of reduction? Any agencies get eliminated?

  • JDog

    Education?  I doubt that.  More like indoctrination.  Today’s youth not only don’t read, can’t spell, and don’t do math without a calculator, they don’t even know what critical thinking IS.  It’s not their fault, either.  It’s the corporate takeover of this country.  They want drones just smart enough to do their menial, low-wage jobs, nothing more.

  • Speech85

    The State government (as has been widely reported) is taking quite a cut and yes, many agencies are being eliminated.  I guess john didn’t include that in his story because he assumed that the folks reading his analysis would have read the headlines (they are headlines) elsewhere….

  • Anonymous

    I never understood why more isn’t done at the local level.  I’m generally against redistribution of wealth and particularly when someone way up in Modoc county is forced by the government to give a portion of their money to someone down in San Bernadino. How about we let the people in Modoc county have the freedom to decide what is done with their money instead of it being forcibly taken from them at the point of the government’s gun, cycled through a huge bureaucracy with pennies coming out the other end.  Less welfare = more freedom.

  • Anonymous

    Reign in higher
    education inefficiencies before additional funding & taxes.

    I love University of California having been a student &
    lecturer. Like so many I am disappointed by Birgeneau’s failure to arrest
    escalating costs & tuition/fees. Birgeneau has doubled tuition and fees. On
    an all in cost, Birgeneau molded UC Berkeley (UCB) into the most expensive
    public university. Faculty, chancellor, administrator
    salaries must reflect California’s
    ability to pay, not what others are paid. Instate tuition consumes 14%
    of a Californian’s median family income.

    Paying more is not a better
    university. Chancellor Birgeneau dismissed removing much inefficiency: require faculty
    to teach more classes, double the time between sabbaticals, freeze vacant
    faculty/administrator/chancellor positions, increase class sizes, freeze pay
    and benefits & reform pensions, health costs.

    Birgeneau said
    removing such inefficiencies wouldn’t be healthy. Exodus of faculty,
    chancellors, and administrators: who can afford them?

    Californians, Alumni agree
    it is far from the ideal situation. Birgeneau cannot expect to do business as
    usual: raising tuition/fees; granting pay raises & huge bonuses during a
    weak economy that has sapped state revenues, individual income.

    Recently, Chancellor
    Birgeneau’s campus police deployed violent baton jabs on students protesting
    Birgeneau’s increases in tuition. The sky above Cal. will not fall when Robert J. Birgeneau
    ($450,000 salary) is ousted.


    Email opinions to the UC
    Board of Regents

  • Speech85

    I take it you support the Governor’s proposal then?  He is calling for doing precisely what you suggest–he just wants to give the counties money to go along with the increased duties.  And yes, that does mean more taxes.

  • Chris

    Most government agencies having been getting 10-20% budget cuts per year since 2008; and a hiring freeze that prevents them from filling vacated positions, often even necessary ones, promotions, etc…  These cuts have also forced staff reductions. This year will be no different. Federally funded state agencies (like Caltrans) aren’t held to this since their funding comes primarily from other sources.

    While the politicians have also received cuts in recent years, several of them gave their staff pay raises this year, and many of those people ear six figures plus, as reported on Capital Alert.

    Last year the legislature was hiring contractors to plug in new computers (not troubleshoot or repair, simply deliver, plug them in and refer any issues to a help desk) at a rate of $35/hr plus overhead.  Many state agencies use temporary staff (like student assistants) to do this work at a rate of $10/hr.

  • Speech85


    It’s obvious that you care a great deal about the cuts to higher education and would like people to take action on various fronts to avoid those cuts, including making greater cuts to other programs.  Your passion is commendable.  However, is there any chance you could post your points on a perhaps more appropriate forum?