State budget all but a done deal

9:10 PM, Jun 10, 2013   |    comments
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Short of a formal vote by each house of the Legislature and the signature of Gov. Jerry Brown, the 2013 budget debate is poised to end with victories for both Brown and his Democratic legislators... though a few more, it seems, in the governor's column.

The Legislature's budget conference committee wrapped up its work just after 9:00 p.m. Monday night.  Unlike in so many years past, the document appears to be a full state budget, with the thorniest issues apparently resolved by midday Monday in private negotiations between Brown, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, and Assembly Speaker John Pérez.

The headline is generally a victory for Brown.  The budget uses his revenue estimates, which are about $3 billion more cautious than those crunched by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office and promoted by legislative Democrats.

"As all budgets are acts of compromise," said state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, "this one is no exception."

In fact, Leno and his fellow Democrats made it clear through Monday night's proceedings that they are maintaining a list of spending restorations on which they conceded to Brown's opposition... but on which they seem to see that concession as temporary.

The proposal, which still must be put into actual bill form by week's end, gives legislative Democrats from both houses a smattering of their priorities, from money for mental health programs to new dollars for career technical education and a new scholarship program aimed at college students from middle-class families.

For the governor, the budget includes most of what he wanted in a major education funding plan to earmark money for disadvantaged students.  The proposal tinkers with, but retains the structure, of the formulas first demanded by Brown in January -- including extra cash for school districts with higher concentrations of poor and English learner students.

To get that, it appears that Brown had to slow down his plans for repayment of money owed to schools from previous budget years --$650 million less in debt payments, an education analyst told budget conferees Monday night.  That money, instead, helps raise the base grant for all students under Brown's plan, not just those who are disadvantaged, by $537 per student.

Senate Democrats successfully pushed for a restoration of dental benefits for Medi-Cal recipients, but the budget deal delays that action until May 1, 2014 -- which means it will cost substantially less ($80 million) in the short term.

Assembly Democrats were able to get some, but limited, help for recipients of the state's welfare-to work program, CalWORKS.  The extra money, which would kick in next March 1, would come from new savings identified in a pot of money earmarked for counties 22 years ago.

The governor, meantime, can count a partial victory in his effort to claw back money from counties that he says are savings under the full implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act.  Sources say the state will get $300 million back in the coming fiscal year, with future years determined by a set of new funding formulas.

Social services advocates are not the only ones facing a 'half a loaf' (or less) in the budget as ratified by the conference committee.  The plan adds $63 million for the operation of courts -- less than the $100 million sought by legislative Democrats and substantially less than court officials say they need to offset hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts in the last few years.

Republicans generally voted against or abstained on the specific budget items ratified Monday night.  In some cases, they objected to not seeing the formal bill language; in others, they criticized Democrats for choosing the wrong priorities for the state's limited dollars.

The governor, though, sounded a happy note in a Monday night statement.

"The Legislature is doing their job and doing it well," he said in an email from his office.  "It looks like California will get another balanced budget and, very importantly, educational funding that recognizes the different needs of California's students."

The budget must be approved by both houses before Saturday night to meet the constitutional deadline, which is also the deadline for legislators to keep their paychecks from being blocked.  This will mark the third consecutive on-time state budget since voters approved the 'no budget, no pay' Proposition 25 in 2010.

The last time there were three consecutive on-time state budgets in California? 1986.


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