SACRAMENTO -- With little time to spare, Democrats sent the final key ingredients of their austere spending blueprint to Gov. Jerry Brown late Wednesday afternoon, hopeful that it will form a helpful backdrop to the upcoming campaign to pass the governor's tax initiative.
Brown signed 21 "trailer," or enacting, budget bills late Wednesday and blue-lined $128 million to build reserve funds to $948 million, close to the $1 billion he'd initially sought, according to an official familiar with the governor's vetoes. Brown was expected to detail the line-item vetoes Thursday.
"This budget reflects tough choices that will help get California back on track," Brown said in a statement. "I commend the Legislature for making difficult decisions, especially enacting welfare reform and across-the-board pay cuts. All this lays the foundation for job growth and continuing economic expansion."
Among the bills with an uncertain outcome was legislation by state Sens. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, to save dozens of state parks from closing next month.
"These parks are precious public resources and extraordinary economic assets," Simitian said. "They are part of our heritage as Californians. They are places that hold great meaning for all of us. While this budget proposal by no means puts an end to our effort to keep parks open, it is an encouraging start with long-term potential."
Cuts to the poor were at the core of the $91 billion budget. Legislators approved reforms to CalWORKS, the state's welfare-to-work program, and the elimination of Healthy Families, a popular health-care program for low-income children. They also passed a bill to place Brown's tax initiative at the top of November's ballot.
As is typical in budget battles, philosophical dividing lines between Democrats and Republicans were stark, evident most obviously in an upside-down debate that had Republicans arguing to save Healthy Families and Democrats rebuking them for "selective outrage."
But with budget bills now requiring only majority votes, Republicans had only the power to stake out symbolic stances and register complaints about being shut out of discussions. They said the budget was nothing more than a political document meant to aid Brown in the fall as he seeks voter approval of his tax initiative, which would raise taxes on the wealthy and boost sales taxes by a quarter of a cent.
A key component to the budget, which closed a $15.7 billion spending gap, is a "trigger" provision that would cut $5.9 billion from schools if the tax measure goes down.
"Twelve days after the constitutional deadline, and it's clear this sham budget wasn't worth the wait," said Assembly GOP leader Connie Conway. "It's unfortunate that the majority party would rather target education with 99 percent of the governor's trigger cuts than consider sensible solutions we put forward earlier this year to protect classroom funding without raising taxes."
But Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said voters will recognize the difficult work Democrats did to balance the budget.
"With the work we've done and the work we need to do, we are poised to take our case to the voters in November," Steinberg told reporters after the last vote.
Democrats and Republicans exchanged their angriest barbs on the trailer bill that eliminates Healthy Families and begins a three-year transition of transferring 880,000 children to Medi-Cal.
Republicans accused Democrats of abandoning low-income children -- a vast majority of them from working-class Latino families -- and dropping a program that has been hailed as a success by health advocates. They derided Democrats for seeking a $13 million saving this year ($75 million in ensuing years) with the prospects of losing out on about $200 million of annual revenue that comes from a tax on health providers to fund Healthy Families.
The tax, which expires in September, would need a two-thirds vote to extend -- an unlikely prospect, Republicans said, now that the Healthy Families program will close down.
"With reimbursement rates so low, few doctors and even fewer specialists participate" in Medi-Cal, said Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres. "The result is a wait time for care that puts these children at risk for greater sickness or even death."
Democrats scoffed at what they said was a rare outpouring of empathy for the poor and even rarer support of a tax.
"You can't fool people with selective outrage," Steinberg said. "You have to have consistency to your point of view."
There was little debate over the changes in CalWORKs, which call for a two-year limit for families to collect cash assistance rather than the four years in current law. Some exceptions will be allowed, as counties were given the discretion of granting extensions six months at a time to those who live in high unemployment areas, are making progress in drug treatment or other programs or need more treatment for problems such as learning disabilities.
Democrats also pushed through, on a 24-15 vote, a bill that places Brown's tax initiative on the top of the list of November ballots.
"This is a cynical last minute move to push it to the top to somehow get a few percentage points advantage before angry voters get to the bottom of the list," said Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Rocklin, noting that Brown's tax initiative otherwise would have been in the No. 8 slot.
Steinberg defended the move, saying that election law requires that constitutional amendments originated in the Legislature to be placed at the top of ballots.
The proposal to save all state parks from closure would build on the nonprofit partnerships created through the California Parks Foundation and their nonprofit partners; encourage parks to become more entrepreneurial and allow more personnel flexibility; and allocate up to $41 million in existing funding to parks.
Some political analysts believe Brown ordered the park closures less as a means of saving money and more as a means of making middle-class voters feel the pain of the state's budget crunch. But administration officials have rejected the idea that Brown has a vested political interest in seeing parks closed.
Among the Bay Area and Central Coast parks facing closure are Candlestick Point State Recreation Area in San Francisco, Gray Whale Cove State Beach and Twin Lakes State Beach in Santa Cruz County.