Dan Walters

Opinion: California’s legislative budget isn’t final word

Gov. Jerry Brown Jr. is joined by, from left to right, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, Assembly Republican Leader Kristin Olsen, Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, as they head to a press conference at the state Capitol.
Gov. Jerry Brown Jr. is joined by, from left to right, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, Assembly Republican Leader Kristin Olsen, Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, as they head to a press conference at the state Capitol. rpench@sacbee.com

Some years ago, a state senator publicly accused a colleague of uttering “mindless blather.”

The critique was surprising because bloviation – a term coined by former President Warren G. Harding to describe “the art of speaking as long as the occasion warrants, and saying nothing” – permeates the Capitol.

So it was on Monday, as the Legislature’s Democrats devoted untold thousands of words to praising a state budget that everyone knows is not going to be enacted, and Republicans added to the plume of hot air with their criticism.

The Legislature’s budget, approved on party-line votes after the blather quotient had been met, is about $750 million higher than what Gov. Jerry Brown wants, mostly for child care and other social service and health programs.

That is, in relative terms, a minuscule amount, slightly less than 1 percent beyond Brown’s number, so their differences are more symbolic than financial.

Brown wants to enhance his reputation for fiscal prudence, warning that too much spending now could lead to deficits later, while his fellow Democrats want to please their liberal constituencies and plant seeds that could grow into a more lavish array of public services.

Roughly a third of the new spending in the Democrats’ budget is a sharp expansion of child care, which is important not only financially, but is accompanied by a provision that child care workers would be unionized.

That’s a big payoff to the Service Employees International Union, a major source of Democratic campaign support, very similar to what happened 16 years ago vis-à-vis in the In-Home Supportive Services program. IHSS caregivers were converted into public employees, creating about 350,000 new members for the SEIU and other unions.

Monday’s rollout merely sets the stage for a fortnight of negotiations that will certainly produce a real budget before the new fiscal year begins on July 1.

One might wonder why Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins staged their budgetary charade.

Since they must deal with Brown anyway, why didn’t they just do it first?

That’s linear thinking, which is forbidden in the Capitol. Politics is about posturing, imagery and symbolism, not cause-and-effect logic.

Atkins and de León are leadership newbies, and Monday (the constitutional deadline for legislative budget action) was an opportunity to pose as compassionate benefactors by channeling taxpayer dollars into relieving income inequality before, inevitably, pruning back the new spending.

That way, Brown would be the stern, disapproving father figure who compels them, against their will, to renege on their vows.

Brown is quite willing to play that role. He wants it to be said, after he finally retires, that he fixed – or at least tried to fix – California’s tangled finances, and wants credit for holding the line on spending.

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