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Brown wants to fast-track budget agreement within 60 days

At a forum in L.A., the incoming governor says the fiscal mess is 'much worse' than he thought; he does not say whether his plan would contain only spending cuts or include new taxes.

December 15, 2010|By Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times
  • "This is really a huge challenge, unprecedented in my lifetime, Jerry Brown said at UCLA.
"This is really a huge challenge, unprecedented in my lifetime, Jerry… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

Gov.-elect Jerry Brown said Tuesday that he wants to complete a budget agreement within two months of unveiling his budget, an accelerated timeline that would allow a late-spring special election for potential tax increases or other revenue generation.

"I'm going to try to get the budget agreements done within about 60 days. I don't think we have a lot of time to waste," he said.

Brown made the remark during a budget forum in Los Angeles, but he demurred when asked by reporters whether his proposal would contain only spending cuts or would include new taxes.

"We'll present a budget on Jan. 10. It will be a very tough budget, but it will be transparent," he said. "We'll lay it out as best I can. We've been living in fantasy land. It is much worse than I thought. I'm shocked."

A spokesman later sought to play down the timeline, calling it "an ambitious goal."

"I wouldn't get too caught up in the 60-day figure," said spokesman Evan Westrup. "The focus is on ensuring the work starts now."

Brown has refused to publicly discuss his budget plans, but he has met privately with lawmakers and interest groups. People involved in the meetings expect him to enact an austerity budget in the spring, then hold a special election in which voters can decide whether to raise taxes or other revenues in order to restore services. He pledged during the campaign not to increase taxes without voter approval.

The governor-elect's comments came during his second budget forum, which focused on education. Brown and other state officials painted a bleak picture, saying the deep fiscal problems mean there will be more reductions affecting California's classrooms.

"This is really a huge challenge, unprecedented in my lifetime," Brown told hundreds of educators, union representatives and parents who had gathered at UCLA. "I can't promise you there won't be more cuts, because there will be."

California's K-12 system has been battered by billions of dollars of reductions in recent years, resulting in teacher layoffs, overcrowded classrooms and a shorter school year. Community colleges have eliminated courses and turned students away. Students in the University of California and Cal State systems have seen sharp fee increases.

These conditions, the budget session made clear, are likely to get worse. The state faces a $28-billion budget gap for the next 18 months, and roughly $20-billion deficits annually through the 2015-16 fiscal year. Non-university education accounts for roughly 40% of state spending, so cuts tend to significantly affect the state schools.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office has forecast that the K-12 school system and community colleges will receive $47.5 billion in the upcoming fiscal year, $9 billion less than four years earlier.

In the past, state leaders relied on one-time gimmicks, some of which made the state's deficit worse, and one-time cash infusions to patch over flawed spending plans. Those days are over, Brown said.

"The day of reckoning is upon us and I'm determined to bite the bullet, get it done in whatever way the consensus of California can be built," he said. "Fair, transparent and enduring — that's my goal."

Educators responded by calling for an end to cuts, asking for greater discretion at the local level as to how dwindling dollars are spent, urging the state to seek more federal funding and requesting legislation that would allow them to increase local property taxes with 55% of the vote rather than the current requirement of two-thirds.

"We can't take any more cuts. You really need to look elsewhere," said Bernie Rhinerson, the chief district relations officer at the San Diego Unified School District. "We are at the cliff."

State Treasurer Bill Lockyer grew visibly frustrated by some of the comments about increasing funding of programs, such as online education.

"Anyone who thinks we get by that without everyone getting hit probably should live in Mendocino County," he said, referring to the region known for marijuana growing. "There are going to be cuts."

"So far, I've heard good ideas about how to spend more money. Great. It ain't there. It's time to make cuts, I believe deep cuts," Lockyer said. "I'd do the 25% across the board and just say those who wanted less government, you're going to get your wish. In other communities that are willing to put something on the ballot to make up that difference, they're going to have a higher service level."

Educators appeared shaken by Lockyer's remarks.

"There is no more meat on this bone to carve, the only thing left is amputation," said David Sanchez, president of the California Teachers' Assn. "If we do what Mr. Grinch wants us to do, the possibility of shutting down schools is a reality. Is that really what we want to do?"

Lockyer later clarified that he had not been making a policy recommendation, but rather analyzing what would happen unless voters sanction increased spending.

Both state officials and the audience appeared to favor pushing for increased taxes.

"These statistics are stark, deeply disturbing numbers that cry out for a balanced solution," said Tom Torlakson, the incoming state superintendent of schools. "A cuts-only budget would be devastating to education."

But Brown noted that though a majority of voters don't want to see more cuts to schools, most also don't want to see taxes go up.

"That is the dilemma," he said.

Brown had previously said he would cut the budget of the governor's office by 20%, but he pledged to cut more on Tuesday.

"Heck, just listening here, I would increase it to 25%, and more before I get finished," he said.

Tuesday's session and one last week in Sacramento were the first in what Brown has said would be a series of meetings to broadcast the dire nature of the budget mess.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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