Lead­ers serve up a leaner bud­get


The Leg­is­la­ture sent Gov. Jerry Brown a ham sand­wich Mon­day and it was quickly cooked into a low-fat, full-course meal.

It was much more nour­ish­ing than the bologna leg­is­la­tors used to serve up sum­mer af­ter sum­mer. I’ll need to ex­plain that. Back in the bad old days, Cal­i­for­nia was one of only three states that re­quired a two-thirds leg­isla­tive vote to pass a bud­get. Too of­ten, law­mak­ers spent much of the sum­mer em­bar­rass­ing them­selves and the state while fail­ing to pass a bud­get.

In 20 out of 32 sum­mers, a bud­get wasn’t passed un­til af­ter the fis­cal year be­gan July 1, usu­ally long af­ter. Eight times it didn’t pass un­til at least Au­gust.

Fi­nally, in 2010, vot­ers passed a bal­lot ini­tia­tive al­low­ing a bud­get to be OKd by a sim­ple ma­jor­ity. It in­cluded a sweet­ener for vot­ers: Leg­is­la­tors would lose their pay if they didn’t ap­prove a bal­anced bud­get by June 15.

The next year, leg­is­la­tors passed a gim­micky spend­ing plan by the dead­line. Brown quickly ve­toed it, call­ing the pro­posal un­bal­anced. And state Con­troller

John Chi­ang re­fused to pay them.

The Leg­is­la­ture sued. Chi­ang’s lawyer told the judge that “you could take a piece of pa­per and write [some num­bers] and you could wrap it around a ham sand­wich and you could send it over to the gover­nor, and you could call it a bud­get.... But it’s still a ham sand­wich.”

But the judge sided with the Leg­is­la­ture, es­sen­tially rul­ing that the con­sti­tu­tional sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers al­lows it to call even a ham sand­wich a bal­anced bud­get.

So that’s legally where leg­is­la­tors stood Mon­day, the dead­line. Any “bud­get” they passed would keep their pay flow­ing.

Truth­fully, it wasn’t a bad bud­get. But it had too much fat for the gover­nor. With Brown con­trol­ling the kitchen, the two sides turned out a com­pro­mise within 24 hours.

Why couldn’t they have agreed last week? A re­porter asked Brown that ques­tion Tues­day and he an­swered: “Well, why things are the way they are is a very philo­soph­i­cal ques­tion that I think you should pon­der.”

OK, my pon­der­ing tells me that leg­isla­tive lead­ers wanted to show they couldn’t be pushed around. “This is not rule by fiat,” Se­nate leader Kevin de León (D-Los An­ge­les) de­clared dur­ing the Mon­day bud­get de­bate. “This is not a monar­chy.”

And Brown again wanted to look like the tough guy on spend­ing. “At the end of the day,” he told re­porters, “it’s my job to keep this bud­get on an even keel.”

Brown, of course, is fo­cused far be­yond this bud­get to the one he’ll leave his pre­de­ces­sor in 2019. “When gover­nors leave town with big deficits,” he ob­served last month, “they’re more scorned than praised.” Brown knows; he left a fis­cal mess when he was gover­nor the first time.

Brown was asked ex­actly when the bud­get deal was cut and what were the key el­e­ments. He replied with a typ­i­cal Brown­ism: “It’s not like a mo­ment in time. It’s a grad­ual un­fold­ing of deeper un­der­stand­ing.... It’s an it­er­a­tive process.”

The real an­swer: Af­ter mid­night on Tues­day. And the gover­nor tossed in some sops to Democrats on child care and preschool, state univer­si­ties, in-home ser­vices and den­tal care for the poor.

Both sides wanted to pro­vide healthcare for im­mi­grant chil­dren in the coun­try il­le­gally, and did. Same with the state’s first earned-in­come tax credit for the work­ing poor.

Brown in­sisted on us­ing his own rev­enue pro­jec­tions, which were about $3 bil­lion un­der the Leg­is­la­ture’s. The $115-bil­lion gen­eral fund spend­ing com­pro­mise was roughly $2 bil­lion be­low what the Leg­is­la­ture had passed and only $61 mil­lion more than the gover­nor had pro­posed.

Brown re­jected the Democrats’ at­tempts to raise wel­fare pay­ments for moth­ers when they have another child, al­low home child-care work­ers to union­ize and to boost grants for the aged, blind and dis­abled who are draw­ing the fed­eral min­i­mum.

“That’s a heart­breaker,” De León told me con­cern­ing the fail­ure — again — to pro­vide more money for the po­lit­i­cally weak aged and dis­abled. “I’m go­ing to fight for that next year.”

Brown was ea­ger to put the bud­get fight be­hind him and move on to two nag­ging dilem­mas: rais­ing enough money to re­pair Cal­i­for­nia’s de­te­ri­o­rat­ing highways and to heal Medi-Cal, the health- care pro­gram for the poor.

To his credit, the gover­nor has de­cided to pri­or­i­tize fix­ing roads and bridges. Congress should act too, he said. “The fed­eral gov­ern­ment has its col­lec­tive head in the sand.”

Prob­lem is, au­to­mo­biles have be­come so fuel-ef­fi­cient that mo­torists are burn­ing less ga­so­line. So the gas tax isn’t pay­ing off as en­vi­sioned. Brown says it’s gen­er­at­ing $2.3 bil­lion an­nu­ally for main­te­nance and re­pairs, but an ad­di­tional $5.7 bil­lion of work is needed.

High­way up­keep “has been be­dev­il­ing this state for the last three gover­nors,” Brown said. “So we’ve got to get at it.... Hope­fully we’ll get some­thing fairly quickly.”

One of the prob­lems fac­ing Medi-Cal is that more peo­ple are el­i­gi­ble be­cause of Oba­macare. But state provider rates, al­ready the low­est in the na­tion, were chopped fur­ther dur­ing the re­ces­sion. So there aren’t enough doc­tors will­ing to serve pa­tients.

For­tu­nately, be­cause of the bud­get vote re­form, leg­is­la­tors can spend the sum­mer de­bat­ing high­way and Medi-Cal fund­ing. Demo­cratic lead­ers won’t need to grovel to Repub­li­cans, try­ing to buy their bud­get votes by of­fer­ing to fund pet projects.

That of­ten pro­duced worse than ham sand­wiches. It cooked up ran­cid pork.

Rich Pe­dron­celli As­so­ci­ated Press

GOV. JERRY BROWN and the Leg­is­la­ture reached a com­pro­mise on law­mak­ers’ bud­get pro­posal within 24 hours. Above, ad­vo­cates for the dis­abled call for fund­ing for ad­di­tional ser­vices at a protest in Sacra­mento.

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