Dan Walters

Opinion: Child care looms as big spending issue in California

The state Democratic Party’s weekend convention in Anaheim began just a day after Gov. Jerry Brown released his revised 2015-16 state budget.

One might expect a Democratic governor to use the occasion to trumpet an expanding economy, a multibillion-dollar cornucopia of new revenues and his plan to spend them. But Brown made only a token appearance, then vamoosed.

Brown’s reluctance to take the spotlight may have reflected what happened after he left.

The convention was full of explicit demands from Democratic legislators and constituent groups for additional spending and implicit criticism of Brown for being too stingy.

The loudest demand is expanding early childhood services, particularly subsidized child care for the working poor. It might be said that Democrats are drawing a line in the sandbox on the issue and may make it the stickiest issue in final budget negotiations.

Brown has clearly been reluctant to expand child care and preschool, which cost $1 billion-plus in state funds now and serve about 350,000 children.

He’s cited other efforts for the poor, particularly a new – albeit tightly restricted and relatively inexpensive – earned income tax credit, but shuns costly new entitlements.

The Legislature’s increasingly influential women’s caucus makes expansion of child care a particularly high priority, saying it not only helps poor women become self-sufficient but also improves poor children’s chances of educational success.

The Service Employees International Union, which seeks to unionize child care workers, is also making a drive for more money. And Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León has enlisted.

“The EITC is an important anti-poverty tool, but it is no substitute for a good-paying job,” de León said after the budget was released. “Too many women are locked out of the job market because they cannot afford quality child care.”

Pointedly, he repeated that mantra during the convention, both personally and via social media.

By happenstance, as the convention droned on, the Legislature’s budget analyst, Mac Taylor, released new revenue estimates. And they threw more fuel onto the child care fire.

Although Brown upgraded his revenue number by nearly $7 billion, Taylor’s office projected it could be another $3 billion-plus higher, but warned anew that most of it would be soaked up by schools and reserves under current law.

There is a way out of the child care dilemma, if Brown cooperates. He and the Legislature could expand services with money required to be spent on schools, thereby avoiding a new general fund entitlement.

However, it would mean less money for K-12 schools and community colleges and thus less for contract bargaining by districts and school unions.

Would Democratic legislators, women’s groups and the SEIU buck the California Teachers Association to get more child care money? We’ll find out by June 15.