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Legislature approves largest spending plan in state history

Local legislators had mixed reactions to the $108 billion budget approved by the state Legislature in an unusual Father's Day session.

In the Sunday session, called on the last day the Legislature had to meet its constitutional deadline to send a balanced budget to Gov. Jerry Brown, SB852 passed 55-24 in the Assembly and 25-11 in the Senate. It is the highest general fund spending plan in state history.

“While this year’s state budget was not perfect, I was pleased to support it. Not only is the budget fiscally restrained, but it puts billions towards paying down state debt and building our rainy-day fund. This budget also increases funding to education, including state preschool for low-income families, and retains the Agriculture Education Incentive Grant Program. This budget supports important public safety programs, such as increased funding for programs to combat human trafficking, jail construction, and court safety,” said Senator Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres) about the passage of the 2014-15 state budget.

Cannella was the only Republican lawmaker in either house to support the main budget bill, which required only a simple majority vote.

The final plan for the fiscal year starting July 1 meets Brown's demands for a rainy day fund and paying down debt while allocating some of the surplus to programs benefiting lower-income Californians.

Lawmakers included $264 million for preschool and day care for low-income families that eventually will cover half of all 4-year-olds in the state. Schools, libraries, art programs, student financial aid and welfare-to-work programs are among the many state-supported services that will see more money in the coming fiscal year.

However, the budget will include $700 million less in debt payments than the governor had originally sought. It also fails to live up to the promises of Proposition 30, Brown's sales and income tax increase approved by voters in 2012, because it does not restore enough money for public education or the four-year university systems.

“I am deeply concerned about many of the changes made to the Governor’s original budget proposal.  In just a few short months, we have gone from completely paying down the debt owed to schools after a decade of cash deferrals, to undercutting that goal by nearly one billion dollars.  It is completely unacceptable to renege on that promise, while at the same time approving a measure that limits a school’s ability to reserve portions of its budget for tough economic times.  I urge the Governor to reject this proposal because it is in direct contradiction to LCFF and the Administration’s own value statements about the importance of a rainy day fund,” said Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen (R-Modesto).

While the main bill sailed through the Assembly and Senate relatively quickly, some of the individual legislation — officially called trailer bills — that implement specific aspects of the spending plan ran into partisan opposition.

In particular, Republican lawmakers criticized the use of money from a fund that collects industry fees through California's greenhouse gas emissions law.

Democratic lawmakers gave Brown a significant victory in allowing him to tap the so-called cap-and-trade fund for California's high-speed rail project, which has been beset by legal and financial challenges. The budget directs $250 million from that fund to California's $68 billion bullet train, a priority of Brown's, while ensuring that the project receives 25 percent of the money in that fund in future years.

"We spent billions so far and there is not one ounce of tracking being laid," said Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield. "It's like we are going to continue investing money in this project until someone finally says it's not going to happen."

Another trailer bill that drew ire from Republicans was SB858, which sets a cap of no more than 6 percent on the amount of money local school districts can set aside for their rainy day funds.

Republicans said it was ironic that the Legislature had crafted a compromise rainy day fund for the state earlier this year but was telling local school districts that they could not keep a robust reserve of their own if they desired.

The bill was pushed by the California Teachers Association and other public employee unions, which want school districts to spend the money they receive in strong budget years. School administrators and the American Civil Liberties Union criticized the last-minute bill. They said it would hurt districts' ability to plan for economic downturns, when funding from the state is reduced.

Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare, called the legislation "unfair and irresponsible."