“A STAY OF EXECUTION”
For Democratic legislative leaders, the passage of Proposition 30 was a bittersweet vindication. Working first with Schwarzenegger and then with Brown, and facing almost united opposition from Republicans, they had slogged through a long march of cuts to state programs that slowly whittled the budget deficit that peaked at an almost incomprehensible $42 billion in 2009.
Now, with the $8 billion in additional revenue Proposition 30 is expected to generate, and the economy stirring toward recovery, the state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst projects that California will face an eminently manageable deficit of $1.9 billion in the coming fiscal year—with the prospect of small but growing surpluses dawning behind that. Brown, in the budget he released on Jan. 10, actually projected a small surplus next year.
Steinberg, the state Senate Democratic leader, said that while “there are a lot of reasons” why voters have provided Democrats with such a preponderant advantage in California, one was the party’s willingness to accept those difficult reductions. “At least in a small way, I think the election results were a vindication of the fact that the majority party … stepped up and made cuts that are still to some degree unfathomable to me,” he said. “And yet as a result of this, this fiscal crisis is now over.”
That success came at an undeniable price to programs that Democrats like Steinberg revere. The state legislative analyst tallied some of the casualties in a report this month: In recent years, per pupil spending for K-12 education has dropped 8 percent, the number of teachers has declined 11 percent, funding for subsidized child care has fallen 25 percent, and tuition at state colleges and universities has nearly doubled. Health care services for the poor have also been retrenched. Overall, the analyst says, state spending per person, when adjusted for inflation, is 18 percent lower than it was in 2006.
“Many on both sides didn’t take the race seriously. But I was very tenacious.” —Assembly member Sharon Quirk-Silva
Not surprisingly, after the big Democratic victories in November, key party constituencies want Sacramento to reverse course. “The supermajority really offers California state government an opportunity to move past gridlock,” said Scott Moore, a senior policy adviser to Preschool California, a group that advocates for spending on early-childhood education. “Absolutely, we’d like to see the beginning of the restoration of those services.”
Howard of the children’s advocacy institute is one of many analysts who say that while Proposition 30 forestalled further cuts, it still leaves the state well short of the funding required to provide quality education for its heavily minority and lower-income student body. “Proposition 30 is a stay of execution,” he said. “It’s not going to bring California schools back to where they were when the governor’s father was governor.”
Yet from Brown through Steinberg and Assembly Speaker Perez, Democratic leaders have been united in tempering expectations. Though the two-thirds majorities allow the party to raise taxes without any Republican support, all three men, in separate interviews, ruled out tax increases beyond those already approved in Proposition 30. “I do not anticipate any further taxes,” Perez said flatly. Added Brown: “You don’t need more revenue.”
“A VERY PLASTIC WORD”
With pressure from Democratic interests for more spending—and potentially more taxes—certain to grow as the state economy continues the nascent recovery that has finally dipped unemployment back below double digits, Brown is quickly settling back into the sackcloth he wore in his first stint as governor, as the champion of “limits” to what government can, and should, do. “Need is a very plastic word: It expands under the pressure of whoever is pushing it,” he said. “In terms of providing more money, you can’t possibly restore all the cuts.” The sober budget that Brown released last week reflected his conviction. It offered modest increases in funding for primary and secondary education and smaller growth for higher education, but mostly kept the belt tight.
For now, that restraint is unlikely to face a serious challenge. Perez is emphatic in supporting Brown’s hard line. “You can’t restore what you can’t fund,” he said. “Our first charge with the supermajority is to build on the economic stability … and to grow jobs. The only way we will continue growing revenues is to continue growing jobs and business in the state.”
That approach is fine as well with Quirk-Silva, an elementary-school teacher who ran on improving education but believes her centrist district wants restraint. “As much as restoring programs is important to me,” she said, “that won’t be my first priority. My first priority will be to analyze how we are using resources.”