Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Budget goodies not so good for open process

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

No matter whether it's called budget dust, Christmas tree ornaments or bling, the massive $145 billion state budget and 22 trailer bills that implement it are crammed with stuff, much of it added with little public airing.

There's $2 million for an Anne Frank exhibit at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, $2 million for a trauma recovery program in San Francisco, and $10 million as partial payment for a fish screen between the Sacramento River and the Yolo Bypass.

University of California, Riverside, is getting $15 million to open a medical school, now that a Democrat, Sen. Richard Roth, represents UC Riverside. We could use more physicians. There's $5 million for a new pier in La Jolla. Everyone likes piers.

There's nothing wrong with spending tax money. That's what it's for. But the 2013-14 budget is noteworthy because after years of cutting, there's money to spread around. In a $145 billion budget and a $96.3 billion general fund, legislators, staffers and lobbyists can find $2 million in the couch cushions. No one would ever miss it.

California's budget has ceased being a train wreck. Budget fights don't last long into the summer. Voters approved a 2010 initiative permitting legislators to approve spending plans by a majority vote. That's an improvement.

Last year, voters also agreed to a $6 billion-a-year tax hike, giving Democrats, who hold supermajorities in both houses and control the entire budget process, more to spend. It's much more pleasant to spend than to cut.

"Money is better than no money," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco.

This new budget also is remarkable for policy shifts required by budget trailer bills, some of which run in excess of 700 pages. In many instances, budget trailer bill language was jammed through the Legislature with little time for hearings, which was the point. And that is not good.

Gov. Jerry Brown was especially aggressive in his use of the budget to shape policy and government. In one small example, he won the right to appoint a paid chair of the board that will oversee his criminal justice realignment. The measure also exempts board members from normal conflict-of-interest provisions that could preclude them from having financial stakes in contracts they issue. Perhaps the governor has someone in mind.

This year's budget is striking for the personal nature of some policy provisions. Lawmakers used the budget to take a whack at the owners of Honda Center in Anaheim, where owners angered organized labor by firing unionized workers.

The budget bill specifically bars any arena located in one of the state's enterprise zones – the Honda Center fits that description – from firing workers, hiring new workers and claiming state enterprise-zone tax credits for making new hires.

Another trailer bill, the one governing environmental protection, includes a kindness for Gladstone's, the iconic restaurant on Will Rogers State Beach in Malibu owned by Los Angeles nightclub owner Sam Nazarian and his company, SBE Restaurant Group.

The provision authorizes the state parks director to grant the owners a 15-year lease, longer than the normal 10-year lease, so Nazarian can fully amortize $1.5 million in improvements to the restaurant. It helps to hire good lobbyists. His company recently retained veteran lobbyist Susan McCabe.

Many budget-related policy changes probably would have stalled if they had been subjected to the regular legislative process. The health care trailer bill includes a requirement for creation of a public database to provide information about carcinogens and reproductive toxins in cosmetics and other personal-care products.

No doubt, lobbyists representing manufacturers of such products would have killed or watered down the disclosure if it had gone through the regular committee process. Greater disclosure is good. But publicly airing policy shifts in legislative hearings is important, too.

Blocking trailer bills is tough. They can contain hundreds of provisions and appear in print only a few days or hours before the votes. Under new voter-approved rules, legislators risk losing their pay if they fail to approve budgets by the June 15 deadline.

The budget no longer is a spectacle that makes California the butt of ridicule. Brown will sign it by the July 1 start of the new fiscal year, after making some tweaks by using his power to veto certain items.

But for the most part, the budget approved by lawmakers on Friday and Saturday will stand, with the earmarks and policy shifts tucked into turgid language in bills that combined run thousands of pages. Try as we might, none of us could ever hope to decipher it all.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/morain.