SACRAMENTO -- The Democratic-controlled state Legislature on Friday overwhelmingly approved a moderate budget that saves some new revenues for a rainy day and pays down California's massive debt while still beefing up K-12 education spending by billions of dollars.
The $96.3 billion budget -- the third-biggest ever -- was mostly guided by Gov. Jerry Brown and includes new funding to help middle-class families afford college tuition, subsidize child care for working families and restore dental services to the poor. The budget also helps keep trial courts open, gives a hand to welfare recipients looking to jump to the middle class and provides more mental health services for those in need.
But most of the new revenues from the budget, bolstered by the recovering economy and tax hikes approved by voters in November, will fund K-12 education. Every public school district will get more money to spend per pupil, while disadvantaged students will get even more funding.
Gone, at least this year, are the deep deficits and harsh negotiations that have highlighted budget talks in the state Capitol over the past half-decade. Instead, this year's budget has enough money to create a $1.1 billion reserve, make small payments toward California's $27 billion "wall of debt" and scrape back a few hundred million dollars of the cuts made to social services during the Great Recession.
"The passage of the budget may just represent the end of one very difficult era and the beginning of a new and better era -- an era of economic growth, hope and restoration," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.
Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, was just as upbeat. "This budget is really in stark contrast to the budgets of the last several years," he said.
One of the main budget provisions Perez and other Democrats sought was middle-class scholarships, which will kick in for eligible CSU and UC students in the 2014-15 school year. When fully implemented in 2017-18, the scholarships will cover 10 percent of tuition and fees for families earning between $125,000 and $150,000; 25 percent for those earning under $125,000; and 40 percent for those with a family income of $100,000 or less. CSU alone estimates 150,000 students may qualify.
Middle-class students are often overlooked in discussions about college affordability, but they struggle too, sometimes working two or three jobs or leaving school to save up enough money to return, said Safeena Mecklai, vice president of external affairs for UC Berkeley's student government.
After striking out on financial aid and private scholarships for her two children, Hayward resident Regina Brooks was relieved to hear that help for middle-class families is on its way.
"Any little thing for me would help," said Brooks, whose son transferred from the Peralta Community College District to Sacramento State and whose daughter goes to Hayward's Mt. Eden High School.
Brooks is a reading coach and her husband is the head custodian at an Oakland school. Their combined incomes put any kind of state financial aid just out of reach, she said. Her daughter hasn't even started her last year of high school, she said, and the teen is already worried about how to pay for college.
Another significant win for Democrats was the restoration of dental care benefits for the poor.
"It's a big relief for 3 million-plus Californians who suffered with both the health and financial consequences of that cut four years ago," said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, a statewide consumer group. "This will prevent people from having to go to the emergency room for a root canal or abscesses in their teeth."
Still, the vast majority of social services slashed during the Great Recession will remain at their current funding levels, and the state faces years, if not decades, before it can finish paying off its debt and the unfunded liabilities it owes to current and future retired state employees.
Conservatives said the plan did not go far enough to trim the state debt and spent too much on new pet projects, while some liberals wanted the Legislature to go farther in wiping away some of the cuts of years past. Brown was in the middle, agreeing to some comparatively small spending bumps proposed by Democratic lawmakers but mostly keeping in place the cuts he made over the past two years.
The Senate approved the main budget bill 28-10 while the Assembly passed it 54-25, with Republicans in both houses opposing the spending plan. About two-dozen "trailer" bills that augment the main budget were working their way through both houses Friday and were set to be completed Saturday ahead of a midnight budget deadline. Brown is expected to sign the budget before the fiscal year begins on July 1.
The June 14 passage of the budget represents the earliest date the Legislature has approved a spending plan since 1986, though it was still just a day before their constitutional deadline. And though they only need a majority of votes to pass a budget, overwhelming Democrat support led them to do it this year with a two-thirds majority, which they used to need before a 2010 ballot measure changed those rules.
Although their votes were moot, several Republicans voiced their displeasure in both houses. They said the state was gambling by introducing new spending programs when the economy was still wobbly.
Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, R-Camarillo, the ranking GOP member of the budget committee, predicted: "California state finances will hit this wall, and we will have to make cuts again."