Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Anti-poverty advocates ramp up pressure for more spending

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

As the weather warms and legislative deadlines approach, the state Capitol comes alive with rallies and demonstrations of all ideological stripes.

Political expressionism was especially active on a sunny Tuesday with two rallies outside the Capitol and hundreds of Californians – plus one woman from Italy – packing hallways for a bill that, if it hadn’t been softly sidetracked, would’ve ended marine park orca shows.

Crime victims and their advocates staged the biggest rally, an annual event seeking validation and sympathy, and politicians, including Gov. Jerry Brown, were there to utter the requisite bromides. What, after all, could be safer than empathizing with crime victims?

“Know you have a friend in that building over there,” Brown told the assemblage.

Brown didn’t venture, however, a couple of hundred feet away to a much smaller rally of anti-poverty groups and a few friendly politicians, supporting a wide array of bills and budget appropriations attacking “income inequality.”

All would cost money, either from the state budget to boost spending on “safety net” services such as welfare grants and health care, or from employers for higher minimum wages and mandatory paid sick leave. Collectively, they represent Brown’s biggest challenge this year as he seeks a fourth lease on the Capitol’s corner office.

Not that Brown has to worry about re-election. He is likely to receive a record book-worthy landslide this year, and one reason for his broad and impregnable political standing is that he has been leery about joining his party’s populist crusade on income inequality.

Nationally, Democrats are chanting the mantra in hopes of staving off what polls indicate will be a big Republican year – possibly strong enough to wrest control of the U.S. Senate. Embattled Democratic legislators and congressional members in California are joining the chant.

Brown, however, has been reluctant to add his raspy voice, in part because he’s something of a skinflint and in part because he doesn’t want to risk leaving behind a big budget deficit as his legacy five years hence.

His resistance, however, is becoming more difficult to maintain as the state’s revenue surges from an improving economy and a temporary tax increase he championed, and as liberal advocacy groups and legislative allies ramp up pressure for action.

Brown wants to divert extra money into debt repayment and a rainy-day fund.

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, is carrying a bill to boost the minimum wage higher and make future increases automatic, a top priority of the anti-poverty coalition.

Brown specifically rejected automatic wage hikes last year as he signed a two-stage increase from $8 to $10 an hour.

“It will still be legal in California to pay poverty wages,” Leno told the rally.