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About That Giant California Budget Surplus

Max Whittaker for CALmatters

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to reporters on the floor of the Assembly chambers on December 3, 2018 at the State Capitol in Sacramento, California.

Max Whittaker for CALmatters

Judy Lin, CALmatters

What would you do with a $21.4 billion windfall?

That’s essentially the question California is confronting amid record surplus projections in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s first year in office.

On one hand, the former San Francisco mayor showcased his progressive agenda by setting ambitious goals for universal preschool, expanding health coverage for undocumented immigrants, and proposing the nation’s most generous paid family leave program.

On the other, Newsom made the case that he’s still being fiscally conservative by using a modest growth rate of 3.2 percent, socking billions more into the state’s rainy day fund, and paying down debt and public employee retirement liabilities.

“I think, arguably, it’s even more conservative in that respect than previous administrations,” Newsom said of his overall $209 billion state budget.

The governor’s finance department broke the $21.4 billion surplus into three buckets: roughly $3 billion for ongoing spending, $8.5 billion in one-time spending and $10 billion to build what Newsom is calling “budget resiliency.”

The initial $3 billion bucket would be used to expand ongoing services for the poor, particularly the in-home supportive services program and CalWORKS for working parents. A portion of that would be used to boost higher education to stave off a tuition hike in the UC & CSU systems, as well as fund a second year of free community college.

The second bucket of $8.5 billion would be targeted for Newsom’s ambitious push for affordable housing and to confront California’s homeless epidemic, to lay the groundwork for extending full-day kindergarten to all Californians by providing money to build or retrofit classrooms, and to provide school districts much-needed relief by contributing an extra $3 billion toward the districts’ teacher pension payments.

With the remaining $10 billion surplus, Newsom wants to pay off debts, which he says would help the state weather a potential economic downturn. Specifically, he would finish paying off Brown’s so-called $28 billion Wall of Debt that had accumulated from years of internal borrowing, undo a 9-year-old accounting trick that pushed the June state payroll into July so it looked like the state was spending less, set aside $2.3 billion for operating reserves and most significantly, make an extra $3 billion contribution to the state’s main pension fund.

So how did California wind up with an extra surplus?

Essentially the sales and income taxes passed during Gov. Jerry Brown’s tenure coincided with an economic recovery. One week after Newsom won the election, the Legislative Analyst’s Office announced that state finances were in remarkably good shape, with a $14.8 billion surplus for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Newsom and his finance director, Keely Bosler, say there are two reasons the surplus grew by $6.6 billion. One comes from positive balances state accounts carried over from past years, and the other is that the Newsom administration is choosing to project less growth in Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program for the poor.

“We’re projecting more modest growth in the Medi-Cal budget, which makes sense, because we’ve seen this big ramp up on the expansion of the (Affordable Care Act) and it’s beginning to level off,” Newsom said. “That affords us the opportunity to make these historic investments and paying down debt and unfunded liabilities.”

Bosley, who also served under the Brown administration, said she was hesitant to modify assumptions about Medi-Cal caseloads and costs, but ultimately felt it remains adequate. That’s because the state has seen the number of uninsured Californians drop as the state aggressively signed people up for private insurance plans offered through Covered California while also expanding Medi-Cal coverage for the poor.

On Monday, the legislative analyst weighed in with its assessment of Newsom’s budget and commended him for paying down debt, a move it called prudent. The analyst, however, now projects the state will have a $20.6 billion surplus, nearly $1 billion less than the governor’s figure, and included a word of caution.

“The governor’s budget proposal reflects a budget situation that is even better than our estimates,” the analyst wrote. “Largely as a result of lower-than-expected spending in health and human services programs, we estimate the administration had nearly $20.6 billion in available discretionary resources to allocate. That said, recent financial market volatility poses some downside risk for revenues.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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