Gov. Jerry Brown summed up the state budget challenge in nine words: “There are only so many cookies in the jar.”
State lawmakers have one month to decide who gets cookies — and how many to save for another day.
There will be compelling arguments for new and expanded programs, including relief from the rising cost of a higher education. But, with state revenue lagging behind projections and potential cuts in federal funds, the Legislature’s majority Democrats need to take a long view.
California isn’t far removed from the draconian cutbacks of the Great Recession, and, because of a hyper-volatile tax system, another downturn could quickly thrust the state back into deep budget deficits.
Moreover, if congressional Republicans repeal the Affordable Care Act, which extended health insurance to millions of California residents, “what we’d have to do is ugly,” Brown told reporters last week. “No one wants to take that up yet.”
For now, the governor is proposing a record $183 billion state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The revised plan delivered to the Legislature on Thursday includes an $8.5 billion rainy-day reserve fund, the first $2.8 billion for roads and bridges from a gas tax hike that takes effect later this year and $6.5 million for the added legal workload associated with fighting threats from Washington to cut funding for California. Brown’s updated spending plan also eliminates a freeze on funding for subsidized child-care programs and gives counties an extra $400 million to pay for home-care services for the aged and disabled.
But, consistent with Brown’s message of prudent spending, the budget includes a number of one-time expenditures, including a $6 billion loan to the California Public Employees Retirement System that could save the state $11 billion in annual pension costs by 2038.
Closer to home, Brown wants to allocate $1.5 million to a grant program for cleaning up pesticide damage and other environmental harm caused by illegal marijuana cultivation in Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties — the so-called Emerald Triangle.
“These illegitimate growers have continued to ignore not only state laws for farming cannabis but have left these sites ravaged by lethal chemicals, clear-cutting and thousands of pounds of trash,” said Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg.
Finally, he offered an additional $50 million for the University of California — but only if it carries out the recommendations from a scathing audit of budget reserves and compensation levels in the office of UC President Janet Napolitano. “I put that $50 million in there so we can hold their feet to the fire,” Brown said.
California’s finances are generally sound as Brown approaches the final 1½ years of his tenure. But the present recovery is two years away from being the longest since World War II. And there’s no telling what kind of cuts could be coming from Washington, especially for health care. So, to borrow the governor’s analogy, it’s a good time to keep something in the jar in case the Cookie Monster shows up at the door.