Transit restoration bill fast-tracked to receptive governor

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, the party affiliation of Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Martinez was misidentified in a prior version of this story. She is a Democrat and also chair of the education finance committee.A bill to restore this year's $248 million home-to-school transportation cut was passed Tuesday by the Assembly's budget committee with expectations of moving quickly to the Senate by Thursday.

Gov. Jerry Brown has indicated he will sign the legislation.

A long line of school administrators and advocates testified in support of SB 81, which would replace the governor's mid-year school transportation funding cut with an across-the-board cut to revenue limit money that supporters say will amount to about 0.65 percent for each district.

Supporters - including a majority of budget committee members - said the bill is needed to offset the extremely disproportionate nature of the transportation cuts and to avert catastrophic" consequences in some of the hardest-hit districts.

"We have a crisis situation that needs to be addressed," said Susan Bonilla, D-Martinez, chair of the education finance subcommittee.

The mid-year cut was part of a budget deal worked out last year between Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature to balance the budget. But state revenues fell short of expectations, triggering January cuts that included K-12 education funding.

The impact of the school transportation cut on district budgets rallied the state's education coalition to action when the true nature of the cuts was revealed - districts with greater transportation needs were cut more than those without large bussing budgets, and many schools faced even more financial hardship.

"In my district, it means it will be impossible for some children to attend school," said Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata. "I think we can put this on the governor's desk and I think he will sign it."

Michael Cohen, chief deputy director of Gov. Jerry Brown's Department of Finance, indicated that may be the case, saying the administration is "OK with the current form of the bill" because it preserves the budget savings the transportation cut provided.

Insiders say there are strong indications from the governor that he will sign the bill.

"Our strongly held prognosis of support by the Governor and key legislative leaders for making this change was the result of several weeks of conversations in the Capitol," said Kevin Gordon, president of School Innovations & Advocacy (corporate sponsor of Cabinet Report).

Lawmakers expressed some concerns, however, that the governor's proposed budget for 2012-13 includes the elimination of all transportation funds - something that is expected to meet with resistance in the coming weeks.

Several lawmakers who voted to move the bill on to the Assembly floor said they did so because they recognized the dire situation many districts are facing without transportation funding. However, they were also unhappy because even with the across-the-board revenue limit cut, some districts would be hit harder than others.

"We need to look at ways of restoring cuts within these districts that did not anticipate them," said Bonilla, noting that one school district that she represents will now have to take a $600,000 revenue limit reduction it hadn't planned for.

The Assembly Budget Committee was scheduled to begin 2012-13 budget deliberations later in the day.