January is the time California governors release their state budgets for the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1. And when Jerry Brown did that this week, he had a rare but welcome bit of good news: an actual budget surplus. Of course not everyone agrees the news is all that rosy. We look behind the headlines with John Myers, political editor for KXTV in Sacramento.
Scott Shafer: John, first of all, big picture question, the governor says more or less the era of big deficits is over, the clouds are parting, the sun is shining, dogs are playing with cats, everyone agrees. What’s your take on it? How good is it?
John Myers: Well you know Scott, I mean it is good in the sense that is it a heck of a lot better than where we’ve been. I mean the estimate of the legislative analyst back in November is that we would have a $2 billion deficit. That was a measurement taken in the fall, less new economic data than the governor’s budget. But, you know, the governor has some optimistic assumptions in here. Not everything could be perfect and the sun could be shinning. I think in the last few years optimistic assumptions has been kind of code in Sacramento for gimmicks. And I don’t think that’s true this time. It’s a pretty good budget, I think in terms of straight budgeting. And real reason is that is new taxes. I mean like ‘em or not taxes are a reliable way to balance a budget. And Jerry Brown won that debate at the ballot back in November and the Prop. 30 taxes are the real reason it’s balanced, even with this little surplus, out into the next few years.
Shafer: And let’s hear what the governor had to say about that. This is from his Press Conference on Thursday:
“They voted for the tax measure, we’re putting the money into the schools, as I said, but we’re also not going to play the game of spending money we don’t have and then after I’m gone somebody else comes along and has to face what I did. A 27 billion dollar or a 20 billion dollar deficit.”
And John Myers, there you have Governor Brown as the grown-up, the cheap, frugal, responsible parent in a way. It seems that’s almost a perfect role for him, that that’s really who he is in a sense. What’s your take?
Myers: Well it is certainly the persona that Jerry Brown has finally honed, over the years. You know the man who likes a free meal, where he can get one, the man who doesn’t fix the hole left in the rug by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the governor’s office, but it’s also a matter of necessity too. I mean, I think Brown did come back into office the second time around, third time around rather, with this idea of kind of trying to fix the problem. But what he has done, he has provided a bridge through these taxes, through everything else, to a different era in California and economic recovery. I think what he does from here on is the real fascinating part and he got over the hump for the taxes, now what?
Shafer: Well and there’s got to be as you well know, I mean after all these years of cutting and austerity, there’s got to be a lot of pent up demand from schools, but late reunions and others. To what extent do you think are Jerry Brown’s fellow Democrats, in the State Legislature, in sync with him on his spending priorities and this notion of restraint?
Myers: Well I think in general, you know Scott, I think they are in sync at this point. The legislative leaders quickly came out on Thursday, they praised the governor’s budget, they said it was right direction. You know, but they do know that budgets are much more layered than just the general taxes and revenues. I mean, that goes back to our conversation about gimmicks in years past. And that’s not to say that’s what they want to do, but I do think they think there are some areas that the governor hasn’t looked at, that they want to look at. For instance, there are a lot of ways to get money into a budget that aren’t just general taxes. There are fees that go to particular programs, there’s the idea of looking at tax credits and can we afford all of those. In the past, all of those things required by partisan cooperation to get them out of the Legislature and now as we know with this supermajority in the Capitol, Democrats can do it all on their own.
Shafer: Buried in like sort of the second or third paragraphs of the stories about the budget this week John, this notion that the governor, not only is he adding money to the schools, but he wants to change the formula, the funding formula, so that the wealthier school districts get less money. How big a fight do you think he’ll have?
Myers: Well I think it’s part of the narrative of Jerry Brown, of local control and not state control. I mean, we walk back the clock briefly here to look at where we’re gone with this. The governor pushed this big realignment proposal in 2011, that moved public safety and social services programs. The governor has tried to kind of cut the strings of state government in places and this is what that is too. He wants to give more freedom and more money of course to those in lower-income and English learners. I think that the challenge for the governor here is that all of those layers of state control over money and education, categoricals as they’re called. They’re there for a reason. Interest groups like them, a particular policy was served, how he goes through that that’s a tough one, especially for the governor’s allies in politics, his biggest allies from November, the California Teachers Association, they’re going to take a really close look at how many strings we cut off of the money and send to local schools.
Shafer: And John as you said the Democrats have supermajority in both houses, they don’t need Republican votes for much of anything. How are the Republicans and their leadership reacting to that new role?
Myers: Well at this point I believe it remains to be seen. It’s a very strange world for them. In terms of the budget this week, I mean, they were, as to be expected, were somewhat critical of the fact that baseline spending for the state would go higher. I mean it is a frugal budget, but spending is increasing. I think they’re looking for issues to kind of push through the narrative with Democrats. I do think for instance, they are talking about a tuition freeze, there’s a piece of legislation that Republicans have moved at the capitol, for a seven year freeze of tuition at the UC and CSU schools. I think they think higher ed is a really salient thing that they can get the public’s attention on. But also too, I would really look for Republicans finding a way to be involved if Democrats aren’t in locked step. You know moderate and liberal Democrats, if they split on issues here at the capitol in 2013, they may need a coalition. Especially moderates of Republicans and maybe that will give them a chance to be heard.
Shafer: Can’t always count on all those Democratic votes on every issue.
Myers: You really can’t. I mean I think that’s important to note here. I mean Democrats are not all alike, we haven’t seen that in years past because they had a Republican opposition on the other side they had to work with. We’re really going to see the differences between moderates, liberals, environmentalists, valley, coast, you name it.
Shafer: John Myers, political editor for KXTV in Sacramento. As always John good to talk to you.
Myers: Thank you.