Brown Budget Praised Cautiously - Brian W. Jones

Brown Budget Praised Cautiously

Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget received a mostly positive reception Thursday, particularly from schools that stand to benefit the most. The Democratic governor also got credit from some...

Republicans and pro-business groups for his efforts to control spending, build an emergency reserve and begin attacking the state’s staggering debt load.

But that’s not to suggest there won’t be bruising battles ahead. Brown’s fellow Democrats are under pressure to increase spending on health and welfare programs hard hit by the recession and they have priorities of their own. Republicans say he does not commit enough to reduce public pension liabilities, should abandon earmarks for high-speed rail and must concentrate more on creating jobs.

Brown was in San Diego Thursday as part of his three-city tour to unveil his proposed budget and make a case for restraint even as revenues accelerate.

“Certain people would say let’s go on a spending binge. But I say it is time for wisdom and prudence: pay down our debt, put it in a rainy-day fund and be prepared for the next downturn,” he said at San Diego City Hall.

California's long term liabiliy

Still, his 2014-15 budget would increase spending substantially. Brown’s proposed general fund spending comes in at a record $106.8 billion — a more than 8 percent increase over 2013-14 levels.

The release of the proposed budget, which was leaked out Wednesday, marks the opening day of what is traditionally a grinding process. Lawmakers will now chew on the proposals, but most of the hard work will not begin until May when an updated budget based on new revenue estimates is released. The deadline is June 15.

K-12 schools are the primary beneficiary with a $4 billion increase. Brown proposes using another $6 billion to pay off the state’s debt to education accumulated over previous years.

“He used the words prudent and wise, but I think it’s smart,” said Randy Ward, San Diego County superintendent of schools. “In terms of education, you have to pay down the debt. That debt, those deferrals, have been inequitably crippling districts.”

San Diego Unified School District spokesman Moises Aguirre said the district welcomes Brown’s offer.

“We are heartened to see the state is turning around and the budget is looking more positive than it has in the past,” Aguirre said. “…This is a pretty severe recession we are starting to rebuild from.”

Over at the Chula Vista Elementary School District, officials say the budget will help restore lost revenues from previous years.

“It is encouraging to see additional funding for the most vulnerable of our students,” said Oscar Esquivel, assistant superintendent for business services and support.

Constance Carroll, the chancellor of the San Diego Community College District, did not mask her glee over a proposed 7.3 percent increase. Her district is in line for about $19.7 million more next fiscal year.

“It is the best budget I’ve seen and most of us have seen in five years. It really is a cause for celebration right now,” she said.

She said the funding would allow the district to hire more full-time faculty and expand the number of classes they offer as well as provide money for maintenance projects and to purchase needed equipment for laboratories and classrooms. Carroll said the district also would be able to restore some of its summer course offerings.

Both the University of California and California State University systems received budget boosts designed to prevent tuition hikes and speed up the time it takes for students to earn a degree.

But it’s not all accolades from local leaders.

While the governor’s budget would pay off $11 billion worth of debt to schools and other programs, he delays making good on the IOUs to local governments for a few years.

“I’m disappointed that the proposed budget doesn’t contain any money to actually deliver on that promise (of reimbursement)” said Dianne Jacob, chairwoman of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. The county is owed about $60 million.

Jacob also argued the state should use some of the extra cash to eliminate a $150 annual fire prevention fee levied on rural homeowners.

“If state coffers are now flush with new revenue, action should also be immediately taken to eliminate the illegal fire tax that is being charged to backcountry residents,” Jacob said.

Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee, questions whether Brown can keep the reins on his fellow Democrats.

“My hope is the Democrats in the Legislature will tread cautiously in the coming months because foolish revenue assumptions is what got us into trouble in the first place. We must focus on growing the surplus — not spending it,” Jones said.

The budget projects a $3.2 billion surplus at the end of the fiscal year and $10 billion over three years.

Democrats say they have a mix of priorities, using most of the windfall for paying down IOUs and stash in the bank as a hedge against the next downturn. But they also want to see restorations of some of the deep cuts imposed on social service programs.

“We all agree that the budget should take a cautious approach to expenditures, even as our economic outlook improves. We also share a commitment to paying down our debt, especially to schools; building up our reserves; investing in education, jobs and job creation; and ensuring a safety net of services for the most vulnerable Californians,” said Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego.

Said Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento: “We must invest in the people of California, especially those living in the economic margins.”

Advocates for the poor plan to pressure Democratic allies to add more assistance given the improved budget.

The County Welfare Directors Association called Brown’s proposal “a missed opportunity to end poverty” by investing more in programs to alleviate child hunger, homelessness and child care.

PICO California, a coalition of faith-based groups, faulted the budget proposal for not steering more money to health care for the poor, especially unauthorized immigrants. They want Medi-Cal for children strengthened and more resources directed to programs to keep people out of prison.

“This is morally disgraceful, shortsighted and at odds with the values and priorities of our faith-based organization. The budget includes some programs in these areas but not enough,” said the statement.

Brown did not welcome calls for new spending beyond what he proposes.

“It isn’t time to just embark on a whole raft of new initiatives. …When the money is in, people try to go for it. We try to keep it very measured,” he said.

Assemblyman Rocky Chávez, R-Oceanside, praised the governor’s commitment to set aside a $1.6 billion rainy day fund for emergencies, but wants to see more in the bank given the volatility of the economy.

“A 10 percent rainy day reserve will help protect us from large cuts to education and other services,” Chávez said.

Brown steered clear of suggesting any new taxes, noting that voters approved temporary income and sales taxes in 2012 that have helped stabilize services and reduce long-term debt.

“We have to live within our means before going back for more taxes,” he said.

That position cheered business and anti-tax groups. One example came from Jack Stewart, president of the California Manufacturers & Technology Association: “The combination of spending restraint and no new taxes is a positive sign for manufacturers and others looking to invest and locate in California.”

One of Brown’s election opponents, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, wasn’t buying the notion of restraint. He called the budget “a tsunami of new spending.”

California’s financial turnaround is due in large part to temporary tax increases approved by voters in 2012. Combined, those tax increases are expected to generate about $6 billion a year. Economists also note the state’s economy is picking up.

Staff writers Caroline Dipping, Craig Gustafson, Karen Kucher and Gary Warth and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

Staff writers Caroline Dipping, Craig Gustafson, Karen Kucher and Gary Warth and the Associated Press contributed to this story. [email protected]• (916) 445-2934