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A New Kind of Budget Fight at the Capitol

Andrew Nixon, Capital Public Radio

Healthcare workers held a rally outside the Capitol.

Andrew Nixon, Capital Public Radio

The chants and cheers echo off of buildings and the Capitol dome. From social service advocates, to healthcare workers, to union members, everyone hopes their voices will travel through the halls of the Capitol and drift into the office of Governor Jerry Brown. But their cries may fall on deaf ears.

As he released his updated budget proposal last month, Brown made it clear he’s not convinced the good times will last and he’s not about to go on a spending spree.

“Everybody wants to see more spending,” Brown says. “That’s what this place is; it’s a big spending machine. You need something? Come here and see if you can get it. Well, but I’m the backstop at the end and I’m going to keep this budget balanced as long as I’m around here.”

That backstop has allocated an extra $2 billion for schools, but few other big ticket items made it on his list.

Yet some of Brown’s fellow Democrats say, after years of devastating cuts, it’s time for some reinvestments. The non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that, over a three-year period, California will take in $3 billion dollars above the governor’s projections.  Legislative Democrats say that means there’s more money to spend. And Senate leader Darrell Steinberg says there’s great need for that money.

“We must pay down debt aggressively, we must have a healthy reserve," he says. “And at the same time we are negotiating with the governor to restore some of the cuts that have had the greatest and most severe impacts on people.”

Steinberg wants to restore dental and mental health care funding. The Assembly wants to increase child poverty welfare grants and child care slots.

The formal legislative discussions about what will get funded happen in a budget conference committee, where all the major players come together to hash out their different proposals. For instance, both the Senate and Assembly plans call for giving state trial courts about $100 million, something the governor does not support.

Democratic Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell says the money is not a splurge, but a vital expense.

“We’re not starting at sea-level, we’re below water,” she says.”And so, the point is, because of a number of years of deep, deep, cuts, we have to have a conversation about getting up to a point where there’s functionality across the board.”

But the governor has said it’s not progressive to fund a program in boom times only to gut it when the economy goes bust. Michael Cohen with the governor’s Department of Finance made that point at a budget hearing.

“When we make a commitment and build up a program, we’re in the best possible position to ensure that we’re not going to turn around the next day or the next year and take it away,” he says.

And even those who support restoring budget cuts know not all programs will get money right away. Senate Budget Chair Mark Leno has spoken at several rallies for programs he knows he can’t restore. Still, he says all those chants and cheers serve a purpose.

“And I tell every group, be the squeaky wheel that we hear the loudest, because if you don’t raise your voice it’s not heard,” Leno says. “At the same I’m very forthright that the many, many billions of dollars that we have cuts over recent years cannot and will not be restored within a single year or even in the next two or three years.”

So the rallies will likely continue as lawmakers argue over what to restore, instead of what to cut.

You can see how the governor's budget proposal comapres to the Senate and Assembly proposals here.

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