Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg defended a last-minute budget bill protecting teachers from further layoffs and reducing district authority, saying that Democrats preserved class sizes and education jobs.
The proposal was backed by the California Teachers Association, which has significant budget influence. About two-fifths of the state's general fund must flow to K-12 schools and community colleges, and the union has been a reliable Democratic contributor.
"We were intentional," Steinberg said during a meeting with The Bee Capitol Bureau. "We do not want to create a situation where more teachers and classified employees lose their jobs. And we did not want to see class sizes increase."
Assembly Bill 114 has drawn fire from school fiscal officials because it reduces their authority, especially if the state imposes a midyear $1.5 billion classroom reduction should tax dollars fall short.
The Senate leader said the teachers union made a concession by allowing districts to reduce the school year by as much as seven days if that money gets cut.
But the bill requires districts to negotiate with unions representing teachers and staff to reduce their pay for those seven days. Steinberg downplayed that provision, saying that districts "could always unilaterally implement (furloughs) if they reach an impasse with the union."
Michael A. Hulsizer, chief deputy for governmental affairs for the Kern County superintendent of schools, called the impasse route "next to impossible." He said the months-long negotiating process would have to begin right now for an impasse to occur by February.
Steinberg acknowledged that Democrats rushed Assembly Bill 114 through the Legislature, though he said the haste was necessary to preserve the majority-vote budget deal before it could unravel.
After talks between Gov. Jerry Brown and Republicans broke down last week, Steinberg said Democrats would work on their own pension legislation. He pointed to Brown's proposals that eliminate the purchase of extra service credit, prohibit retroactive pension increases and ban payment of pension benefits to employees who are convicted of a felony related to their job.
Steinberg is open to a cap on pension benefits, as well as a voluntary hybrid system that contains a 401(k)-style component. But he said he would not change benefits for existing employees.
"I think they're vested rights," he said.
The Senate leader said he is interested in a broad coalition including labor and business groups to put tax and governance measures on the ballot in November 2012.
Steinberg said he believes courts must resolve whether the state controller or any other executive can block pay for lawmakers under voter-approved Proposition 25. Controller John Chiang docked pay and per diem for 12 days last month, about $4,830 for each rank-and-file member.
"In the moment, of course, it was a popular decision," Steinberg said. "But over the long term, do we really want any governor of the state of California, or a controller, or it could be an attorney general, to say, 'I demand more cuts. I demand solutions different from what you presented or else people aren't going to get paid' ? "