Democrats clash with Jerry Brown on budget

It was oh-so-polite, but an initial airing of Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget in a state Senate committee Thursday foretold election-year conflicts between the governor and legislators — particularly his fellow Democrats.

Brown, both in the budget and in this week's State of the State address, said he wants to hold down spending, with the exception of K-12 education, and divert rising revenue mostly into debt reduction and a rainy-day fund.

“We can't go back to business as usual,” Brown told lawmakers. “Boom and bust is our lot and we must follow the ancient advice, recounted in the Book of Genesis, that Joseph gave to the pharaoh: Put away your surplus during the years of great plenty, so you will be ready for the lean years sure to follow.”

Brown will, it's certain, seek his fourth and final term as governor as someone who cleaned up the state's tortured finances, created a healthy reserve and paid down debt.

However, many legislators — particularly fellow Democrats — have other priorities, especially to restore financing for “safety net” health and welfare services that during years of mounting budget deficits were reduced, or as Brown budget adviser Keely Bosler put it in a marvelous new official euphemism, “uninvested.”

Liberal members of the Senate Budget Committee took turns politely criticizing what they see as areas in need of improvement, whether they be in child care for welfare recipients, kindergarten expansion to younger children, expansion of college enrollment or increased financing for courts.

Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, bolstered her position as the Legislature's leading critic of health and welfare service reductions but was joined by others, indicating that it will be a big issue.

Criticism of Brown's giving the courts only a $100 million boost after years of deep reductions is a rarely bipartisan theme.

“The courts are still on life support,” Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, told Bosler. “Denying access to the courts is simply not acceptable.”

“The budget is great for the schools, not so much for the rest of the budget," the Legislature's budget analyst, Mac Taylor, said, offering several specific criticisms — such as the use of cap-and-trade emission fees on business to bolster Brown's pet bullet train project.

Taylor warned that were the shift to occur, “You're going to be taking large amounts of money in future years for high-speed rail.”

Environmental groups and their legislative allies are critical of using emission fees for the project because it offers no immediate reduction in greenhouse gases.

Bosler stoutly defended the budget as written, saying, “This budget as a whole strikes a balance.”

Thus the stage is set for a battle of wills — particularly if revenue continues to surpass current estimates, and Brown continues to insist on holding the line on spending.

Dan Walters covers state politics for the Sacramento Bee.

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