Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Can Brown hold the line on California ‘safety net’ spending?

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Three years ago, as he began his third term as governor and faced a severe budget crisis, Jerry Brown prescribed fiscal medicine that his fellow Democrats had a difficult time swallowing.

One of the most contentious issues was cutting welfare and other “safety net” services for the disabled, the aged and the poor – millions of adults and children.

Brown insisted that the cuts were “necessary because we just don’t have the money” and made it clear he intended that they not be temporary.

“They’re a retrenchment in what California was attempting to do in recent years,” he said, adding, “they look permanent to me” because “the money isn’t there.”

The state’s finances are considerably better now, thanks to an improving economy and a temporary sales and income tax increase approved by voters in 2012. And the general assumption is that at least for the next few years, they will improve even more.

That poses a problem for Brown – how to maintain a tight lid on spending, especially on safety net services. Recipients and their advocates, including unions, are besieging Democrats in budget hearings, calling it a life-and-death issue.

During his State of the State address in January, and in other forums since, Brown has continued to preach prudence, if not austerity, worrying aloud that loosening up too much would cause problems when revenue flattens, and urging that some excess revenue go into a rainy-day fund.

“Well, you’ve got to be tough on spending,” Brown said during a recent appearance on national television.

“No matter how liberal you want to be, at the end of the day, fiscal discipline is the fundamental predicate of a free society.”

In fact, Brown has eagerly spent more on schools, particularly on districts with large numbers of poor and English-learner students.

That expansive attitude has not, however, extended to safety net services that he and predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger slashed.

His 2013-14 budget gave welfare recipients a 5 percent boost, with future increases tied to revenue, but as the liberal California Budget Project points out, the increase doesn’t offset the 12 percent grant cuts in previous years.

The CBP has calculated that grants have dropped from more than 80 percent of the official poverty threshold a quarter-century ago to about 40 percent now.

With Democrats adopting poverty and income disparity as 2014 election themes, safety net spending is a major budget issue – not only welfare grant levels, but the “family maximum” that bars grant increases for women who get pregnant while receiving aid and myriad other specifics.

A newly proposed ban on overtime for providers of home care for the aged and disabled is a particularly vexing conflict.

We’ll soon learn just how firmly Brown will enforce safety net “retrenchment.”