Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
File: Gov. Jerry Brown walks with advisors to a press conference about his proposed budget at the California State Capitol on Jan. 10, 2011 in Sacramento.
Democratic lawmakers plan to vote on a series of budget bills Wednesday, but they’re tweaking the fine print in this year’s spending plan more than usual.
Longtime Sacramento watcher Bob Stern says that’s no surprise given that they want voters to approve a temporary tax hike in November.
“The governor is trying to show the voters that he is as responsible as he can be and is cutting things that most people, frankly, don’t care that much about,” Stern said.
Like the elimination of Healthy Families — California’s healthcare for low-income families. The budget shifts nearly one million children in that program onto Medi-Cal. The governor has also cut Cal Works’ welfare to work benefits, and reduced the number of state-subsidized child care slots. Stern says lawmakers can make the changes without threatening the tax initiative because lower-income people tend to not vote.
“I’ve been watching this for 40 years,” Stern says. “I think every year it’s full of politics. This one maybe more so than other because of the governor’s tax measure on the ballot. They want to make sure they get this as right as they can because so much is riding on the November vote.”
Democratic leaders just added an incentive to get the University of California and California State University to hold off on tuition hikes. If they keep tuition flat, each system gets an additional $125 million contingent on voter approval of the tax hike.
If voters defeat that tax package, each system gets whacked $250 million, and public schools will absorb a $5.4 billion cut. Democrats just deepened those cuts to allow districts to shave up to 30 days off the school year so they don’t have to cut teachers pay.
Brown has also managed to negotiate a 5 percent pay cut with the state’s largest public employees unions.
Dan Schnur with the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California says all those moves are strategic, but they won’t make the whole case to voters.
“When push comes to shove, this budget really doesn’t matter very much.” Schnur said. “Instead of the budget passage being the political and policy story out of Sacramento, it’s really nothing more than the prelude.”
Schnur says what really counts is what comes after lawmakers pass the budget. Brown has to convince voters that state lawmakers will spend taxpayer money wisely and to do that he’ll have to get them to pass pension reform. Brown offered a plan to do that last December. But Democratic leaders pushed it off until after they pass the budget. Schnur says the slowness of their response could work against them at the ballot box.