As Jerry Brown sought the governorship again, 28 years after finishing his first stint, he promised to bring adult supervision to a Capitol that badly needed it, especially in managing the state’s roller coaster finances.
Brown inherited a whopping budget deficit from predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had inherited one from Gray Davis after the latter was recalled.
Under both Davis and Schwarzenegger, cyclic upticks in revenue were quickly allocated – or squandered – to new spending or tax cuts that, as Brown pointedly observed Tuesday, were then followed by red ink as revenue dipped.
Brown eventually turned to voters for temporary taxes to close the budget gap, and that, coupled with an improving economy, is generating multibillion-dollar surpluses, at least for the moment, that could be just as challenging as deficits.
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Brown recounted fiscal history, indirectly criticizing Davis and Schwarzenegger, as he unveiled a revised 2014-15 budget that raises spending a bit, mostly to cover bigger health and welfare caseloads, but generally diverts surpluses into reserves and debt repayment – including a token amount toward a huge deficit in the teacher retirement fund.
“We bank this money or we pay down out debts,” Brown told reporters. “We’ve done a lot already, and we haven’t paid for what we’ve done.”
The governor also shuns calls from fellow Democrats for new or expanded services, throwing cold water on, among other things, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s push for universal pre-kindergarten.
Brown said that if the Legislature wants pre-K, it should divert money from state allocations for K-12 schools and community colleges.
“We only have so much money,” he said, describing his budget as “my best cut on how to spend the money.”
Brown is absolutely correct that the first priority of any unanticipated revenue should be to pay down debts stemming from past promises, including pensions, and building reserves as a bulwark against the inevitable down-cycles of the future, while avoiding new spending that’s unsustainable.
Brown says he wants to “take the future and bring it forward and handle it,” as opposed to spending new money now and worrying later how to sustain the spending. “I find arguing with reality a chancy endeavor,” he said.
It is, however, a hard sell in a Legislature dominated by liberal Democrats in sync with unions and other groups now beating the drums for what they call “reinvestment” in myriad services and programs.
While they’ve signed on to Brown’s proposal for a rainy-day fund to absorb some of the extra money, they and their allies still want more for health, welfare and education services.
Closing the deficit was the first priority of Brown’s second governorship, but the politics of prosperity could be just as daunting as the politics of penury.