The light at the end of the tunnel was seen Thursday morning as Gov. Jerry Brown outlined a 2013-14 balanced budget proposal that increases funding to all levels of education — and even includes a surplus.
Brown proposed a $97.6 billion general fund for the 2013-14 fiscal year, $6.3 billion more than the current year. A rebounding economy and revenue from the higher sales and income taxes voters approved last November have improved the state's budget situation immensely, according to Brown and the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.
"Right now, for the next four years, we're talking about a balanced budget. We're talking about living within our means; this is new, this is a breakthrough," Brown said at a Thursday morning press conference.
"As we say this, it doesn't mean we're in the clear."
The budget proposal includes a delay in courthouse construction projects up to one year, with exceptions for critical projects; and an increase in court fees.
Welfare programs that saw drastic cuts and reforms this year, will see no return of funding. The only welfare increases proposed are with expanding Medi-Cal enrollment as part of the federal health care reform law.
Local Republican legislators were encouraged by Brown's fiscally responsible budget proposal.
“I am encouraged by Governor Brown’s commitment to use fiscal restraint in his budget plan, which includes prioritizing education funding and reducing debt. The concept of ‘living within our means’ has been a core part of my own and my Republican colleagues’ approach to improve our economy for many years, and I believe sticking to this strategy will ultimately benefit all Californians," said Assemblymember Kristin Olsen (R-Modesto).
“The budget Governor Brown presented today provides an appropriate base for this year’s budget. I am pleased that the Governor understands the need to continue to rein in spending, especially as revenues climb, in order to finally tackle our ‘wall of debt.’ I am also in favor of looking at a new approach to school funding and am interested in examining his proposal. I agree that we should place greater emphasis on local control, so each community can best address their needs,” said Senator Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres).
The budget proposal sees $56.2 billion for K-12 and two-year colleges — a return to nearly prerecession funding after a series of spending cuts. The state would also pay back school districts money owed them from previous years. The University of California and California State University systems each will receive $250 million.
Brown's education spending comes with massive reform in how that money is distributed. Schools would still be paid based on attendance, but also on the proportion of English learners, foster children and low-income students in each district. Districts with more than half of their student population classified as low-income, as measured by free or reduced price lunch participants, would receive additional funds.
The governor also proposes eliminating most "categorical" programs, which are funds that can only be used for a specific purpose. Instead, the school districts would be able to decide how to spend those funds.
"We're investing in our schools and we're doing so in the context of encouraging local flexibility, local control. We want to put the decisions closer to the classroom. Let problems be solved closest to where they exist," Brown said.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson had a mixed reaction to the Governor's budget proposal.
"The Governor's budget proposal keeps the promise we made to Californians who supported Proposition 30, and wisely begins to restore some of what our schools have lost. It will take years to bring our education system back to financial health, and I applaud the Governor for beginning that work in earnest," Torlakson said.
"I do believe, however, that early education programs—cut deeply in recent years—deserve to share in this recovery as well. They are among our best investments in the future of California's children.
The State Superintendent was also wary of the Governor's proposal to move adult education away from school districts and the wisdom of eliminating many "categorical" — or state directed — funding.
"I look forward to working with our community college partners regarding the future of adult education. I am concerned that severing the longstanding ties these programs have with K-12 districts could diminish access to classes that play a vital role in helping Californians receive the basic education they need to become productive citizens," Torlakson said.
"I admire the Governor's determination to move forward with an overhaul of California's confusing system of school finance, and I share his desire to direct more help to students and schools with the greatest needs. At the same time, I remain concerned about the fragile fiscal state of so many school districts and preserving state priorities. I look forward to examining details of the Governor's proposal and working closely with the education community throughout this challenging process," he said.
The budget also allocates $450 million from a corporate tax increase to a special fund for school energy efficiency initiatives.
Brown's budget proposal now goes to the Legislature and will be revised in May. Lawmakers have until June 15 to send their own budget plan to the governor.