Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Brown budget draws kudos, but still some friction

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Gov. Jerry Brown’s newly proposed 2014-15 budget is drawing praise for its emphasis on debt repayment and building reserves, even from many Republicans.

The Legislature’s budget analyst, Mac Taylor, added another round of kudos Monday, saying the proposed spending plan “would continue California’s fiscal progress.”

However, there still is some fiscal friction.

Liberal interest groups are decrying Brown’s reluctance to spend new revenues on health and welfare “safety net” services that had been reduced during years of deficits, and his proposal to drop overtime for unionized home care workers.

Their complaints are finding some traction among Brown’s fellow Democrats in the Legislature. And the prospect that revenues could be even stronger than Brown’s budget assumes – which Taylor’s analysis sees as likely – could either provide the money to meet those demands, or create even more conflict should Brown insist on more debt reduction and reserves.

Brown is clearly concerned that were he to ease up on spending, he could find himself facing big operational deficits if and when the economy cooled, or when the temporary tax increase he championed expires.

If safety net spending is one source of potential friction, another is what used to be called public works, but now goes by the moniker of “infrastructure.”

The budget includes a five-year, $56.7 billion infrastructure plan, details of which were also released Monday. As big as that sounds, it represents a tiny fraction of reported needs, particularly in the transportation field, and assumes that $25.6 billion will be spent on Brown’s pet bullet train project, with the federal government putting up most of the cost.

There’s no reason to believe the federal money will be there, given the hostility of Republicans who control the House of Representatives.

The plan also assumes that $250 million in “cap-and-trade” fees on business will be spent on the bullet train, but that draws sharp criticism from Taylor and opposition from the Sierra Club, other environmental groups and some Democratic legislators because it offers no immediate reduction in greenhouse gases.

The infrastructure plan, meanwhile, does not envision the big school bond issue that the education community has been seeking, and Brown’s budget suggests that school districts and colleges should finance projects themselves, rather than look to the state. Nor does it include a big water bond issue.

Writing state budgets is politically painful when revenues are declining and advocates for programs and services are fighting among themselves over which will take the hits.

But the politics of plenty can be just as daunting as the politics of penury because revenue increases whet appetites and there’s never enough money to meet all demands.