Jerry Brown wants to save budget surplus, but we shouldn’t scrimp on these needs

Gov. Jerry Brown releases his revised 2018-19 state budget proposal on May 11.
Gov. Jerry Brown releases his revised 2018-19 state budget proposal on May 11. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Gov. Jerry Brown, frugal to the end, wants to fill the state’s “rainy day” fund so California doesn’t get soaked in the next economic downturn.

But for too many Californians, hardship is pouring down right now.

So in the next few weeks as legislators tweak Brown’s final budget, it’s entirely appropriate to spend a little more of the $8.8 billion surplus than the governor proposes. It should not be a spending spree that starts expensive new programs, but there’s a big difference between “blowing it,” as Brown puts it, and investing now on urgent needs and pay-now-or-pay-more-later obligations.

An obvious one is the homeless crisis in many cities. Brown is offering $359 million to help cities deal with homelessness, plus $312 million for mental health services. Big-city mayors led by Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento and a group of senators are understandably asking for more.

Democrats Scott Wiener of San Francisco, Nancy Skinner of Berkeley and Jim Beall of San Jose want $5 billion over the next four years, including $2.1 billion for affordable housing, $1 billion to address long-term homelessness and $1 billion for short-term homelessness. The senators’ plan more realistically addresses what has become a crisis, draining the coffers of cities such as Sacramento, and prompting even successful middle-class residents to leave the state in search of a cheaper cost of living.

Room should also be made in this budget to restore more of the state’s funding to public universities and colleges slashed during the last recession. The Legislature’s annual tradition of nickel-and-diming of the UC and Cal State systems not only betrays our values, but shortchanges California’s economy.

In an analysis this month, the California Budget and Policy Center reported stunning increases in recent years in California high school students who qualify for CSU and UC admission, plus community college transfers. Yet because California’s public universities can’t accommodate them, tens of thousands of hopeful California kids don’t enroll at a CSU or UC, and, tragically, thousands end up not going to any college whatsoever.

The state is leaving an estimated $1.4 billion in possible tax revenue on the table because those potential high-wage workers are settling for a high school diploma, the center reported. California will never make a dent in its poverty rates without aggressive action to educate more of its workforce.

Brown’s budget proposal would give each institution $92 million, with no enrollment growth factored into the appropriation. As usual, it’s not nearly enough; for once, we can afford to fix that. Giving CSU another $100 million and UC another $140 million this year would shore up the quality of public higher education and let thousands more kids enroll.

There are other priorities. Senate Republican leaders are right to push for more money to clear the backlog of untested rape kits – which could lead to arrests in cold cases. Advocacy groups estimate there are at least 13,600 untested kits.

Senate GOP leaders Patricia Bates of Laguna Niguel and Jim Nielsen of Tehama are also correct in seeking more money to track and seize illegal guns from felons, the mentally ill and others. There’s a backlog of about 10,000 people on the prohibited list who may still have their guns, according to the state Department of Justice. This is one area of bipartisan agreement in the gun debate; Democrats should grab the opportunity.

Even with some more additional spending, the state can be careful with its finances.

In January, Brown proposed putting part of a projected $6 billion surplus into the rainy day fund so that it will be filled to the maximum $13.8 billion by next July. By the time he rolled out his revised May budget, surging tax revenues had added $2.8 billion to the surplus. So he wants to stash another $3.2 billion in a reserve account for natural disasters and other emergencies.

And there is more flexibility if – as the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office says – the governor is underestimating revenues by about $3 billion in 2018-19.

Gov. Brown can be proud of getting the state out of boom-and-bust budget cycles, but as he advises, moderation in all things. That includes saving too much.