Capitol Alert Breaking

California governors tend to win state budget fights

California Gov. Jerry Brown, waits to answers questions during a news conference where he announced a budget agreement last week.
California Gov. Jerry Brown, waits to answers questions during a news conference where he announced a budget agreement last week. rbyer@sacbee.com

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, defending a more expansive state spending plan than Gov. Jerry Brown would allow, sermonized earlier this week on the Senate floor about the power of the Legislature.

“We don’t treat whoever occupies executive office ... as a deity,” he said. “This is a coequal branch of government.”

But the budget agreement announced the next day – and passed by lawmakers on Friday – laid bare how overmatched the Democratic-controlled Legislature stands in spending talks with a governor of its own party.

Though lawmakers secured significant spending increases for education and health care, the $115.4 billion general fund plan largely preserves the lower overall spending levels Brown proposed, as well as his more conservative revenue estimates.

At the news conference announcing the agreement, the governor was asked, “How were you able to get them to blink?”

The outcome reflected a political dynamic fixed for years in California budget talks: For as much as lawmakers demand, it is the governor who holds greater leverage in negotiations. He wields the power of a line-item veto.

“Governors virtually always get what they want,” said Steve Merksamer, who was Republican Gov. George Deukmejian’s chief of staff. “The governor, at the end of the day, wields the ultimate authority because he has the blue pencil (veto), and he can knock out programs that he thinks are over-funded.”

Brown, a fourth-term governor with favorable public approval ratings and a well-funded campaign account, asserted himself in budget talks in 2011, when he issued what was believed to be an unprecedented budget veto.

Negotiations have become less rancorous in years since. This year, by working within Brown’s overall spending framework, legislative Democrats successfully prodded Brown to agree to funding increases for preschool and college education and to expand Medi-Cal coverage to 170,000 undocumented children starting in May 2016.

The administration recalculated expenses in Medi-Cal and a college scholarship program, finding a total of $257 million.

Though total general fund spending came in only about $61 million higher than Brown proposed, a series of budget shifts allowed lawmakers and the governor to free up money already in Brown’s plan. The administration recalculated expenses in Medi-Cal and a college scholarship program, finding a total of $257 million.

On Friday, de León said lawmakers had made “unprecedented gains” in child care and education.

Yet Brown forced lawmakers to abandon proposals to eliminate a cap on welfare-to-work payments and to fund a rate increase for caretakers of developmentally disabled people, among other measures.

“Our realities are you can’t always get what you want or what we need, given the limited resources that we have,” de León said. “However, we live to fight for another day.”

At a rally outside the Capitol on Wednesday, Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, lamented that disabled people “don’t have a political action committee, they don’t give money to candidates … there’s no high-priced lobbyists running around lobbying for them” during budget deliberations.

Asked why the Legislature conceded to Brown on funding, Beall said, “I don’t know. He’s very steadfast in his refusal to increase spending.”

Brown and lawmakers often fought over spending when Brown was governor before, from 1975 to 1983, including a legislative override when he vetoed a pay raise for state employees.

In contrast, by collaborating with Brown, lawmakers gain more certainty for the program funding they manage to include in their budgets. Last year, Brown’s line-item vetoes totaled only about $38 million, mostly for technical fixes in the budget legislation.

The budget agreement approved Friday won support from some Senate Republicans, while one Senate Democrat, Holly Mitchell, refused to vote on the plan. Mitchell of Los Angeles said the budget did too little to help people living in poverty.

In the lower house, the budget bill passed almost entirely along party lines, with every Republican except for Rocky Chávez of Oceanside voting against it.

Democrats in the Legislature passed a more expansive spending plan on Monday, knowing Brown would not accept it but racing to meet a June 15 deadline or give up pay.

“I was frankly surprised that they did give in so early, and for so little,” said Jeff Cummins, a political science professor at California State University, Fresno.

However, Cummins said, “they might come back later on with something that the Legislature wants” and that it is possible Brown has “signaled some willingness to do what they want” in other areas.

Brown this week called special sessions on health care funding, and roads and infrastructure, and lawmakers are still negotiating with Brown over millions of dollars in spending of revenue from cap and trade, money polluters pay to offset carbon emissions.

Legislative leaders successfully pushed back on Brown on a controversial proposal to exempt a range of drought-related projects from provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act, the state’s signature environmental law. Lawmakers on Friday rejected broader language proposed by the administration, limiting the kind of projects eligible for exemptions.

Former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat who negotiated budgets with both Brown and his predecessor, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, recalled going into budget talks with pressure from constituents and rank-and-file lawmakers to advocate for myriad spending increases, while “knowing that in the end you’re going to negotiate for three or four hundred million dollars” on top of the governor’s proposal.

Steinberg said the Legislature’s achievements in years following the recession should be judged collectively, as program expansions negotiated one year typically enjoy ongoing funding even as lawmakers obtain new spending commitments in other areas.

“It’s so easy to forget how difficult these budgets were a mere five, six years ago,” Steinberg said. “It’s easy to take for granted that we’ve worked through the hard times and are living in better times, so the fights now – these are good fights to have.”

David Siders: (916) 321-1215, @davidsiders. Jeremy B. White, Alexei Koseff and Jim Miller of The Bee Capitol bureau contributed to this report.

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