Capitol Alert Breaking

Lawmakers approve California budget with midnight deadline looming

California lawmakers approved a $156.4 billion state budget Sunday, rushing to pass legislation less than six hours before the constitutional deadline.

The spending plan, a compromise between Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature’s Democratic majority, includes more money for high-speed rail, Medi-Cal and welfare-to-work, and an expansion of child care and preschool for poor children.

It also begins to pay down an estimated shortfall of more than $74 billion in the teachers’ pension fund and puts about $1.6 billion into a special rainy-day account.

The budget’s passage resolves months of budget negotiations at the Capitol, a process that has become less rancorous as the state’s financial condition has improved. The Father’s Day vote came just before the midnight deadline by which lawmakers must pass a budget to avoid losing pay.

“This is a much brighter day than what we’ve seen in years past,” said Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, adding that only in recent years have lawmakers started restoring cuts made during the recession.

Republicans said the budget will spend too much on new programs and not enough on reducing long-term debt. They also objected to measures inserted into the budget package in recent days with little public review, including controversial language capping the amount of money school districts may set aside for economic uncertainties if state-level reserves reach certain levels.

That measure, included in one of 18 budget-related “trailer bills,” was backed by California’s influential teachers unions and opposed by school administrators. Even some Democrats who supported the measure or said it was innocuous criticized the late hour at which it appeared.

“My main concern truly is with the process,” Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego, said before the measure cleared a budget committee Sunday. “This is clearly a major policy deviation from the way we’ve done business, and this is something that could have been discussed over the last several months.”

The Legislature cast votes Sunday cementing victories for legislative Democrats on education and social-service spending, and for Brown on high-speed rail. The budget includes $250 million in cap-and-trade revenue – money polluters pay to offset carbon emissions – to fund construction of California’s $68 billion rail project, with 25 percent of carbon emission funds going to the project in future years.

“This is an investment in the future that I see Californians and people across the country and across the world will look back at and find the hesitation hard to comprehend,” Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley. “Every major economy in the world has a high-speed rail system. California, with its record of groundbreaking infrastructure and transportation improvements, should be, rightfully, the first U.S. state to have high-speed rail.”

Republicans in the Assembly rose one after another to denounce what they called a giveaway to a failed project, pointing to the train’s legal setbacks and uncertain long-term financing.

“High-speed rail is dead, and as a state we need to give up on this particular project,” said Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, R-Camarillo.

The Senate approved the main budget bill 25-11. Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, broke ranks with Republicans to cast the GOP’s only vote for the main bill. The vote in the Assembly on the main budget bill was 55-24 along party lines.

Republicans joined Democrats in negotiating a reserve-fund measure in May, early in the budget process, but they were otherwise sidelined in the talks.

Hours before lawmakers took up the budget Sunday, Senate Republican leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar said on Twitter, “Usually on Father’s Day, I barbecue meat. I wish I could roast a few Dem priorities.”

In a speech on the Senate floor, Huff criticized a budget he said was the result of a “backroom deal.”

The final budget included several items introduced in recent days. Lawmakers approved language Sunday eliminating a lifetime ban on CalFresh and CalWORKs assistance for felons convicted of drug offenses, and they removed a requirement that undocumented immigrants applying for driver’s licenses submit affidavits acknowledging they lack Social Security numbers.

Instead, undocumented immigrants will be allowed to simply state their ineligibility on license applications when they become available next year.

The Brown administration justified the inclusion of license language in a budget bill by noting the spending plan includes money for hundreds of additional DMV employees to process license applications. A legislative analysis estimated the funding at $67.4 million.

Lawmakers put off action on a proposed 10-cent-per-pound assessment on the distribution of “safe-and-sane” fireworks in California. The bill would have required two-thirds support in the Legislature because it would have created a new fee.

The revenue was proposed to pay for disposing hundreds of thousands of pounds of illegal fireworks. Representatives of nonprofit groups and fireworks manufacturers said the bill would hurt nonprofit groups that sell fireworks to raise money.

Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a Twin Peaks Republican and failed gubernatorial candidate, called the measure a “tax on patriotism.”

The budget’s expansion of education and social service programs, while more expensive than Brown proposed, fell short of spending levels many Democratic lawmakers sought.

The agreement includes $264 million for new children’s programs, including 11,500 preschool slots for low-income 4-year-olds by June 2015 and another 31,500 slots in future years.

Democrats initially proposed offering transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds.

As in previous years, Democratic lawmakers vowed to keep up pressure to expand programs in future years.

“We will be back,” said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara. “And we will be hopefully as strong and as vocal as possible.”

The budget now goes to Brown for action. On Friday, Brown said in a prepared statement that the spending plan is a “solid and sustainable budget that pays down debt, brings stability to the teachers’ pension system and builds at long last a reliable Rainy Day Fund.”

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