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California Assembly, Senate outline divergent budget plans

Senators want more money for dental care and mental health while Assembly members want to boost welfare grants, but neither plan aligns with the governor's.

May 28, 2013|By Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times
  • "The differences will be ironed out," said Assembly Budget Chairman Bob Blumenfield (D-Woodland Hills). "We will adopt another on-time, balanced budget."
"The differences will be ironed out," said Assembly Budget… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)

SACRAMENTO — Now that Gov. Jerry Brown has rolled out his revised budget proposal, both houses of the Legislature are outlining their own ideas for how the state's money should be spent in the next year.

The Senate wants more funding for mental health programs, dental care for poor adults and career training for high school students. The Assembly wants to increase welfare grants, expand child-care programs and reduce university costs.

Neither wish list matches Brown's $96.4-billion budget proposal, which is almost $2 billion smaller and relies on a more pessimistic view of California's economy. The lawmakers have less than three weeks to reconcile their differences; state law requires them to pass a budget by June 15. The governor has until the end of June to sign a spending plan into law.

"The differences will be ironed out," said Assembly Budget Chairman Bob Blumenfield (D-Woodland Hills). "We will adopt another on-time, balanced budget."

Budget dynamics are changing as California shifts from years of deep deficits to an expectation of extra funds. Democrats weary of repeated cuts are now jockeying to restore money to their favored programs, while Brown positions himself as the official best equipped to keep lawmakers from his own party in line.

"We can't commit to higher spending than the budget can sustain," said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for Brown's Department of Finance.

Democratic lawmakers are fueling their larger spending plans with a sunnier financial forecast from the nonpartisan legislative analyst, who says the state will collect $3.2 billion more in tax revenue than the governor estimates.

Much of the extra money would be directed to education by the state's school funding law. But legislators' plans for the rest of the projected surplus reflect the divergent priorities of Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) and Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

For example, the Assembly plan includes a proposal to reduce tuition costs for students from middle-class families, something Pérez originally introduced more than a year ago. He wants $173 million in financial aid in the fiscal year that begins July 1 and $460 million annually after that.

His proposal is nowhere to be found in the Senate's blueprint. The upper house wants $113 million to restore dental coverage for poor adults, which is not in the Assembly plan. Steinberg has made the dental funding a priority, often discussing its importance in meetings with reporters.

On Friday, senators bolstered their case with testimony from an Oakland woman, LeAna Powell, whose coverage was eliminated when the state cut spending on the program in 2009.

"For all you guys who think we don't need dental care, look at this," she said, smiling wide in the Capitol hearing room to show lawmakers and administration officials that she was missing teeth in the back of her mouth.

Lawmakers plan to begin joint hearings later this week to hash out a final budget plan.

Also at stake in the discussions will be Brown's hope to redistribute school funds by sending more to districts with higher numbers of poor students and English learners. Senate Democrats have not budged from their opposition to that plan, advancing a proposal to spread new money more widely across the state instead.

Assembly Democrats have signaled that they are open to a compromise between the two.

Although Democratic lawmakers want to spend more than the governor does, they have taken pains to portray themselves as sensitive to what Brown has characterized as the state's continuing financial vulnerability.

Because their plans rely more on the receipts from unpredictable capital gains taxes, they want to set aside more money as a cushion against rising costs or shortfalls in revenue. And if much of the additional revenue fails to materialize, lawmakers say, the state could pay less of the money it owes to local school districts after years of budget cuts.

Assemblyman Jeff Gorell (R-Camarillo), vice chair of the Assembly budget committee, said he didn't think the Democrats' contingency plans would make their budget proposals any more acceptable to Brown.

"He will likely veto any budget that looks like this one does," Gorell said.

Democrats have supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature, enough to override a veto, although it is unclear whether they would use that power. Republicans have been largely sidelined in the budget debate because they no longer hold enough seats in either house to block a spending plan.

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