Capitol Alert Breaking

California to add child care, transitional kindergarten slots in budget deal

California will add thousands of additional transitional kindergarten and child care slots for young children, according to a budget deal taking shape at the Capitol, while falling short of a broader program expansion Democratic lawmakers originally proposed.

The Legislature’s budget-writing committee met late into the night Wednesday, convening for the first time in nearly a week to close out a range of budget issues dealing with education, local government and other subjects. The panel is expected to finish its work Thursday, with legislative leaders and Gov. Jerry Brown on the verge of announcing a final deal for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The agreement will include $264 million for several new children’s programs, including 11,500 preschool slots for low-income 4-year-olds by June 2015, while another 31,500 slots would be created in future years. In addition, there would be $50 million in grants to preschool programs, $69 million to increase reimbursement rates for early learning and child care providers, and more training. Democrats initially sought much more, including offering transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds, regardless of income.

“This is quite a step forward,” Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, said Wednesday, acknowledging that majority Democrats “had hoped obviously for a lot more.”

Some extra spending depends on higher than expected revenue. There is an additional $200 million in one-time funding for the University of California, California State University and other programs – but only if property tax revenue comes in higher than estimates in Brown’s budget. And the state would pay off more of a $900 million pre-2004 debt to local governments – if general fund revenue exceeds the administration’s estimates.

Lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled Legislature have called for hundreds of millions of dollars more in spending than Brown has proposed. Still unsettled are disagreements over in-home care services and how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in carbon-reduction funds, including Brown’s proposal to use money from the state’s cap-and-trade program for his high-speed rail project.

The Legislature is expected to vote on the plan Sunday, the constitutional deadline to pass a budget.

Meanwhile, school officials came out against state budget language proposed quietly in recent days to cap the amount of money California school districts may set aside for economic uncertainties.

The language, approved by committee members Wednesday, would limit districts’ future fund balances in most cases to two or three times the minimum required by law, a potential victory for public employee unions resistant to tying money up in reserves.

In a letter to Brown administration officials and lawmakers Wednesday, the Education Management Group, which represents school boards, administrators and superintendents, said the bill language is “fiscally irresponsible” and inconsistent with principles of local control.

“For most of the last two decades, California has focused on preventing school district bankruptcies by enacting laws that require multiyear projections, enforcement of strict fiscal standards by county offices of education, early intervention, and even the authority to override the spending decisions of local governing boards,” the letter said. “It is therefore ironic that, at the very time an initiative has been placed on the statewide ballot to strengthen the state’s rainy-day fund, that the Legislature and governor would consider statutory changes that eviscerate provisions at the local school district level that are based on the same premise of fiscal prudence and responsibility.”

The Education Management Group also objected to the last-minute insertion of the language in a months-long budget process.

“People’s jaws are still agape,” said Bob Blattner, an education lobbyist. “At the very last second, it’s such a significant policy issue to drop.”

Brown and lawmakers last month agreed to a major component of the spending plan, a rainy-day fund measure that, if approved by voters, would increase statewide reserves.

Public employee unions had objected to a rainy-day fund measure previously scheduled for the ballot. Kevin Gordon, a longtime education lobbyist, said he suspects “some linkage here to the rainy-day fund and the fact that the California Teachers Association didn’t object” to the new rainy-day fund measure.

“I just wonder if this is a wise thing to do,” said Sen. Loni Hancock, citing the financial problems of some schools in her East Bay district.

The Brown administration said the restriction would only take effect if the rainy-day fund measure passes, and teacher unions said the bill would help ensure school districts don’t hoard money.

“This is all about understanding that school districts really must spend the taxpayers’ dollars that they receive in the classroom,” said Mike Myslinski, a spokesman for CTA.

He said that “may translate into fiscal security for administrators, but it means limiting programs for students.”

As lawmakers took up outstanding issues in committee Wednesday, Republicans complained about receiving deal points without time for review. Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said he had just more than an hour to read and consider “this whole bloody thing.”

“This is no way to do the people’s business,” he said.

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