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California Lawmakers Pass Budget Expanding Help For Poor

Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo

Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, R-Beg Bear Lake, left, visits with Sen.Scott Wilk, , R-Santa Clarita, at the Capitol Thursday, June 14, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif. Lawmakers are expected to vote on a $139 billion state budget plan Thursday.

Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo

(AP) — State lawmakers approved a $139 billion budget Thursday that uses California's massive surplus to boost funding for homeless programs, welfare, child care and universities while also socking some money into savings.

The budget, which boosts spending 9 percent for the fiscal year beginning July 1, was approved with support mainly from Democrats.

Democratic Assemblyman Kevin McCarty says the Legislature has learned from the drastic spending cuts of the past by stashing billions in reserves – while still helping college students and children in poverty.

“It’s responsible and fair – not perfect, but it is solid,” McCarty says. 

The spending plan was negotiated by Democrats Gov. Jerry Brown, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins of San Diego, and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon of Lakewood.

California is riding a wave of economic growth that has produced the largest surplus since at least 2000. Even the most conservative forecast pegs the surplus at nearly $9 billion.

Lawmakers and Brown are using that windfall to fill the rainy day fund to the maximum allowed under the state constitution and boost other savings, producing $16 billion in total reserves. Nearly $14 billion of that will be in the rainy day fund, which can only be spent during a budget emergency caused by a natural disaster or decline in revenue.

Republicans appreciated the reserves but slammed the budget deal for its high spending. Senator John Moorlach rattled off challenges facing the state and compared lawmakers to passengers on the Titanic:

“Unaffordability, poverty, highest taxes, highest debts, token Rainy Day fund – Sacramento has botched it,” he says. 

The budget will boost assistance for people living in poverty, including more than 13,000 new slots for subsidized child care. People on CalWorks, the state welfare program, will see monthly grants rise by 10 percent in April, the start of a multiyear effort to lift the income of the poorest Californians to 50 percent of the federal poverty level. Advocates said the boost would ensure children aren't living in deep poverty, which harms their brain development and hinders future performance in school and work.

It includes $500 million for emergency grants to help cities and counties reduce homelessness. The grants can be used on a range of programs, including housing vouchers and shelter construction to help address California's rapidly rising costs and growing homeless population.

The budget also boosts university funding, forestalling tuition increases at both California State University and University of California, and creates an online community college to offer credentials to working adults unable to attend classes in person. Brown's administration announced that the first program will offer a credential in medical billing and coding.

The deal left out an expansion of Medi-Cal health care coverage to young immigrants living in the country illegally and financial assistance for people who buy their own insurance in the individual market.

California's nearly $200 billion total budget includes $138.6 billion in general fund spending, $57.1 billion in special funds that must be spent for specific purposes and $3.9 billion in money from bonds.

As part of the budget negotiations, Brown and lawmakers agreed to allow victims of a notorious California serial killer to get a renewed chance to seek compensation for their emotional trauma or financial losses. Normally, victims have just three years to file with the California Victim Compensation Board for crimes, but the legislation would open a new window for victims to file claims after 72-year-old former police officer Joseph DeAngelo was charged in the Golden State Killer case.

Lawmakers also approved funding to rebuild the state Capitol annex, which is attached to the historic Capitol and houses most of the offices for Brown, lawmakers and their staffs. Supporters said the aging building is in disrepair and is hazardous for visitors to navigate, but critics said the more than $700 million planned for the project could be better spent elsewhere.

Capital Public Radio's Ben Adler contributed to this report. 

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