For Brown, It Won’t Be Easy to Just Say No

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

Gov. Jerry Brown knows he’s in trouble when even President Obama seems to be ganging up against him.

One of the high points of the president’s State of the Union address the other night was a clarion call for universal pre-school education, paid on the public dime. You know, almost exactly like the proposal by Democratic legislators that Brown pointedly ignored when he put out his proposed 2014-15 budget last month.

The president talked about how he asked last year for Congress to help states pay for adding that extra year of school for all four-year-olds and called on Congress to push that funding through this year.

“It is right for America,” the president thundered. “We need to get this done.”

And just to rub it in, he noted that 30 other states already have raised money for those pre-kindergarten classes.

“They know we can’t wait,” the president said.

Cut to the governor gnashing his teeth and Democratic legislators, educators and children’s advocates frantically firing off e-mails about the need to get California moving on those new classes.

“Yes, we have to be wise about dealing with our budget surplus,” Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said at a Sacramento news conference last month, when he announced his support for a bill that would provide free and universal pre-kindergarten classes across the state.

But money for those new classes would be wise spending, he added.

Multiply Steinberg by the other 119 members of the Legislature, each convinced that his or her own favorite program would be “wise spending” for the state and you can see just how hard it will be for Brown to hold his budget line against new spending.

There’s plenty of evidence that getting children, especially poor children, into school a year earlier can boost their academic performance in later years. And with wealthy and middle-class parents already sending their young kids to private pre-schools, less advantaged children could find themselves behind even before their first day of school.

There’s even more evidence, however, that putting the bulk of California four-year-olds in a classroom with teachers, chairs and workbooks is going to be hugely expensive, with a price tag of about $1 billion by the time the program is phased in over five years.

And an educational program like that is never going away, leaving the state to come up with the $1 billion or more from now until forever.

That works as long as the surpluses continue, but all good things end. Just ask former Gov. Gray Davis.

In his budget message earlier this year, Brown called for “wisdom and prudence” in allotting the state’s growing fiscal surplus and warned that with plenty of state debts still to be paid, “it isn’t time to embark on a raft of new initiatives.”

It’s not that providing that free pre-school is a bad idea or that it wouldn’t be great if the state could instantly boost welfare and health-care payments or provide a more robust safety net or improve the state’s deteriorating infrastructure. But government spending is – or at least should be – a zero-sum game, with every new dollar going to one program having to either come out of another program’s money or from cash set aside for a future no one can predict.

“There’s always a gap between what we’d like to do and what we’re able to do,” Brown told reporters when he introduced the budget.

Not surprisingly, legislators don’t want to make those hard choices. If poor children suffer because free universal pre-school isn’t available, it’s a crime against those children to let even one more day pass without correcting the problem, they argue.

That’s not a new story. Years ago, when I was covering a small Southern California hospital district, a group of doctors came to a board meeting and called for the hospital to buy one of the new and costly medical imaging devices that had just come on the market.

The board members asked the doctors to wait a few months until the next year’s budget was being put together and the cost of the new machine could be weighed against the hospital’s other needs.

That wasn’t good enough for the doctors.

“People will die if we don’t get this machine now,” they warned.

That’s almost the same argument Steinberg and other legislators will be making about any number of worthy programs before the budget is signed in June: if the state doesn’t come through with more money, bad things will happen to good people.

That’s all true, but those woes can’t drive the future of a state like California.

A year ago, Brown talked about how legislators get exuberant over the prospect of budget surpluses.

For legislators, it’s simple.

“There is need. This is right. How can you not spend it?” Brown said. “And it’s very hard to say no and that’s basically my job … I accept and embrace my role of saying no.”

The governor is going to have plenty of chances to say “no” between now and June and it’s a good bet his fellow Democrats aren’t going to make it any easier for him.

John Wildermuth is a long-time writer on California politics.

Comment on this article


Please note, statements and opinions expressed on the Fox&Hounds Blog are solely those of their respective authors and may not represent the views of Fox&Hounds Daily or its employees thereof. Fox&Hounds Daily is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the site's bloggers.