When an exuberant Gov. Jerry Brown released his proposed $96.7 billion state budget Thursday, he called it “a breakthrough” that balances state finances for the first time in years.
Democratic legislators were equally enthusiastic.
“Fantastic job, governor,” was the general response. “Now all we need to do is make these tiny little fixes …”
Expect plenty of those tiny little fixes to show up in coming weeks as Democrats attempt to deal with – relative – prosperity, trying desperately to satisfy both a governor looking to tighten the clamps on new spending and various Democrat-friendly interest groups convinced that now’s the time to repay years of spending cuts.
“I look forward to working with Governor Brown and my colleagues in the Legislature to evaluate this year’s budget to help ensure that it is the best possible plan for a state on the mend,” said state Sen. Mark Leno, chair of the Senate budget committee.
The governor “made a good start” with his emphasis on education, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said Thursday. “I would only add that we cannot forget and we won’t forget mental health, dental care and subsistence for the elderly and disabled as the year progresses.”
Various Democrats called Brown’s budget plan “a solid foundation for the budget process,” “a good starting point,” “an appropriate base” and declared support for “the general direction the governor is taking.”
But they also talked about the need to boost funding for seniors, health care, welfare recipients and other groups and categories that have seen their state funding slashed as California tried to stem a tsunami of red ink.
Brown received a surprising amount of both praise and sympathy from GOP leaders, who like the governor’s call for the state to live within its means.
“I commend the governor for championing fiscal discipline, which is a foreign concept to most Democrats in the Legislature,” said Republican George Runner, a former state senator who is now on the Board of Equalization. “The governor has his work cut out for him.”
Brown knows it won’t be smooth sailing from now until June 15, the deadline for passing the budget.
The road to a truly balanced and sustainable budget “won’t be easy,” Brown said in his budget message. “There will be some disagreements, there will be some heartburn.”
But he promised to play the bad cop to legislators’ efforts to sweeten the budget pot.
“It’s very hard to say no,” he told reporters. “That’s basically going to be my job.”
Don’t expect Brown to win every fight. His plan to trim $200 million from state court budget has plenty of early opposition from both Democrats and Republicans, not to mention judges and criminal justice advocates across California. And his quote from Aristotle – “Treating unequals equally is not justice” – isn’t going to convince legislators in well-off communities that schools in their district should get less state money than those with large numbers of low-income students and/or limited-English speakers.
Expect the governor’s planned $1 billion rainy day fund to take a beating.
Still, most legislators, Democrats and Republicans alike, are at least making the right noises about fiscal responsibility, which is a start toward budget sanity. And if Brown can convince Democrats that good things come to those who wait, he might get the consensus he needs to delay any major efforts to restore years of cuts for at least another 12 months, when the state’s economic condition will hopefully be better.
“I want to advance the progressive agenda,” Brown said, “but consistent with the amount of money the people make available.”
But no one, Brown included, can say what will happen as the Legislature spends months looking at the budget and listening to the complaints of advocates for increased spending.
Asked Thursday if he could guarantee that with the new budget state college fees wouldn’t rise, Brown could only shake his head.
“Guarantees aren’t part of this world we live in,” he said.
John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.