The making of an annual state budget is a remarkable thing to take part in. But I wouldn’t recommend it for the faint of heart. California is a land of extremes. Too often, the budget one year must depart in spirit from the budget the year before. Boom turns to bust out of nowhere the same way drought turns to flood.
How to respond to the urgencies of the moment? How to answer the long-term needs of a state so vast and varied that entire regions exist as separate realms? Budgets are numbers on a piece of paper, yes, but they are dreams in hearts too. For the past several months, my colleagues and I in the state legislature have argued and cajoled and listened, and tried our best to balance the two.
In ten years, this state has overcome the worst economic downtown since the Great Depression and the worst drought in its recorded history, and gone on to leapfrog Great Britain as the fifth largest economy in the world.
You may have heard that we recently passed the 2018-19 state budget. It is no small number, just shy of $200 billion – $199.6 billion to be exact. It makes record investments in schools and universities, eases the crisis of poverty and homelessness, and begins the process of fixing our long-neglected streets and highways – in addition to boosting our reserve, the so-called Rainy Day Fund, to $14 billion.
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But a budget is only a snapshot. It doesn’t begin to speak to the decade-long journey of California, overcoming not only the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression but the worst drought in its recorded history, and then leapfrogging Great Britain as the fifth largest economy in the world. It wasn’t by the usual turns of California fortune that it happened.
Back in 2009, we were $42 billion in the red. Our budget deficit was larger than the budget expenditures of all but 10 other states. National newspapers routinely put our woes on the front page. Music and art programs in our schools had been gutted. University students were paying 9 percent more in tuition.
After 100 days of bickering, a budget was finally passed. It was a bloodletting: $15 billion in spending cuts that included $5 billion borne by K-12 education alone, along with $13 billion in tax increases.
I was running for a seat on the Assembly at the time. I knocked on doors in San Diego County and encountered hard-working people who had lost their jobs and were about to lose their homes. The gap between rich and poor in California had clearly grown wider.
The election of 2010 saw the passage of no more important measure than Proposition 25. Advanced by Democrats, it put an end to the budget gridlock by allowing a majority of legislators, rather than two-thirds, to approve a budget. Two years later, under Gov. Jerry Brown’s leadership, voters turned out in record numbers and passed Proposition 30, increasing sales taxes and income taxes on the wealthy and targeting funds for education and safety.
All the while, California kept growing its “green” economy and adding jobs in technology and small industry.
This is my first budget as president pro tempore of the state Senate. I am proud of the direction it takes California. This is not to argue that the vision it puts forward is a perfect one. No budget that arrives by dint of compromise ever is.
But California will become a better place because of our compromise. No budget in our history has ever invested more in K-14 education. To keep college affordable and accessible to more Californians, we have increased funding for the CSU and UC systems, with almost $500 million going to both.
Anyone who has driven along our rivers and seen the encampments of homeless whose existence brings to mind the Hoovervilles of the 1930s understands how intolerable the situation has become. This budget doubles to $500 million the emergency aid to cities dealing with the crisis. This budget also offers more aid, $360 million, to families enrolled in welfare-to-work programs. Their grants have failed to keep up with skyrocketing rents, causing mothers and their children to live in garages and cars.
I am proud of the budget we have put together. Socking away billions in the rainy day fund is critically important. We know that times turn. This is the lesson of California, and we have done well this budget to heed it.
Sen. Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, is the president pro tempore of the California Senate. Reach her at @toniatkins.