Dems’ supermajority doesn’t preclude real differences on budget with Brown

Even as a key state Senate committee engaged last week in a thorough rebuke of Gov. Jerry Brown's plan for restructuring school finance, panel chair Mark Leno noted that legislative leaders probably still agree with 96 percent of what the governor has proposed.

The observation would seem out of context to developments in recent days as lawmakers in both houses adopted confrontational spending plans that will add billions in spending beyond what Brown has said he would support - and would also tinker with programs that the governor has already warned will provoke the battle of their lives."

While it might seem unlikely that Democrats, who control both houses, as well as the governor's office won't be able to sort out a compromise before the June 15 deadline, some observe that the divide among allies is real and the politics complicated.

"Just because there's a Democratic supermajority - it doesn't mean all Democrats agree," said Barbara O'Connor, emeritus professor of communications at California State University, Sacramento and a long-time student of California politics.

"It is a battle over priorities," she said. "The governor wants to see a conservative fiscal budget that will ensure forward growth - something I don't think any Democrat in the Legislature would disagree with. The question is, how do you arrange the piles of money and in what priority, and there's disagreement there."

Perhaps the biggest dispute is over the amount of revenues the state is likely to have next year and thus, how much would be prudent to allocate.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst has been aggressively defending estimates that state income will be $3.2 billion higher than those of the governor's Department of Finance. The question turns on how much of the additional income next year can be considered sustainable and not just a temporary spike.

The higher spending proposed by the Legislature would go toward paying down more of the debt owed to schools while restoring funding to programs badly cut the last five years - mental health, dental care for the poor, welfare grants and child care services, among them.

Finding room for compromise won't be easy even among usually like-minded Democrats. They are being pushed by their allies in labor and social services whose members benefit from some of the proposed spending.

The politics are also complicated by the fact that both Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez face term limits in 2014, and their would-be successors are already jockeying for position.

Much of the attention has been focused on the differences that lawmakers have with Brown's plan to restructure school finance - the Local Control Funding Formula, which pools the complex web of state funding into block grants with additional money going to help low-income, English learners and foster care students.

One key criticism is that the governor's plan would distribute the extra money for the disadvantaged by district, meaning some needy students in affluent communities would be overlooked. The administration has argued - and the California Teachers Association agrees - that the most effective use of the additional funds is to target districts with the highest percentages of disadvantaged students.

Also at issue is timing for when the new system would come online - lawmakers have suggested 2014-15; Brown says right away - meaning 2014-15. The California Department of Education has already said that even if the governor gets his way, schools will continue to receive their regular apportionment based on revenue limits for at least six or seven more months.

Lawmakers have also been adamant that the new school funding formula face public review through the legislative process as a separate policy bill - not as a part of the budget as Brown has maintained.

The governor will likely strongly resist this given that critics of the plan would have a far better chance of killing the proposal as a policy bill than as a part of the budget.

Even with the array of challenges facing them, lawmakers seem confident agreements can be reached.

"The differences will be ironed out," said Assembly budget Chairman Bob Blumenfield (D-Woodland Hills). "We will adopt another on-time, balanced budget."