Inland elected officials were generally pleased with Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed state budget unveiled Friday.
The $113 billion spending plan for fiscal 2015-16 boosts general fund spending about 5 percent from the current budget and reflects a brighter financial future for a state that grappled with annual shortfalls of $20 billion just several years ago.
But at a Sacramento news conference, Brown warned that the budget is precariously balanced and California faces major challenges down the road, including a $72 billion unfunded liability for retiree health care.
“Our fiscal health depends on the wise and frugal actions that we take,” the governor said.
In a news release, state Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, said the governor “shares my belief that continued fiscal restraint should be a top budgetary priority.”
“As California rights its economic ship, it is important that we continue to balance the budget, build the rainy-day reserve, pay off the ‘wall of debt,’ and build jobs, especially as the State increases funding to K-12 and higher education,” Roth said in his statement.
Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Temecula - he sits on the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee with Roth- called the budget “a good first start, but the details will be hashed out over the coming months as we identify ways to fund to the necessary programs to keep vital services intact.”
“I also look forward to making sure the state budget is not balanced on the back of local governments and small businesses across our state.”
One of the most contentious elements of Brown’s budget is funding for the University of California system. The governor wants to boost UC funding by $120 million, but UC President Janet Napolitano said that’s inadequate to maintain the system’s quality.
The UC Board of Regents has authorized tuition hikes of up to 5 percent a year over the next five years unless the system gets more support from Sacramento. Brown’s plan freezes tuition, and he wants to create an advisory committee to look at how the system can cut costs.
Jose Wudka, a professor of physics and astronomy and chairman of UC Riverside’s Academic Senate, said the governor’s proposed increase is not enough. While the increase represents a rise of 4 percent, state funding makes up less than half the UC budget, he said.
Wudka said the senate has not taken a formal position. But he believes most faculty members are behind Napolitano’s tuition-hike plan.
“There’s certain to be enormous tension between the president and the governor,” Wudka said. “I think, however, both parties are interested in insuring that California gets the best deal. The personalities are very strong, the stakes are very high and the discussions are very serious and I hope they will continue.”
PAYING DOWN DEBT
The budget includes $533 million for local governments to cover the costs incurred by complying with state mandates for various services.
Those mandates, which cover everything from voting machines to jail conditions, are a sore spot for Riverside County supervisors, who frequently complain the state doesn’t provide enough funding. Supervisor John Tavaglione said Brown is keeping his word to pay down mandates that predate 2004.
The budget pays off $1.2 billion in state debt and allocates $2.8 billion to a rainy-day fund intended to bail out state finances when the economy tanks.
In a statement, Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, said Assembly Republicans “are pleased Governor Brown agrees with our position and made paying down the state’s unfunded liabilities a top budget priority.”
“It is good news that California’s economy continues to recover and tax revenue is growing,” said Melendez, the vice chairwoman of the Assembly’s budget committee. “(But) I am disappointed the Governor’s budget proposes new mandates and continues to spend cap-and-trade taxes, paid by employers, to fund high-speed rail.”
Brown remains committed to the $68 billion bullet train project, which broke ground Monday.
K-12, COURTS GET BOOST
K-12 funding would rise another $2,600 per student from 2011-12 levels under Brown’s budget.
That would put the state’s local education funding formula on an accelerated path, said Riverside County Superintendent of Schools Kenn Young. The formula will help students who live in poverty, are in foster care or speak English as a second language, he said.
“In most areas of the county, those students populations are pretty significant,” Young said.
In a statement, Sen. Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga, a Senate budget committee member, said while Brown’s spending plan “does boost funding for K-12 schools and community colleges, it still fails to spend every dollar from the Proposition 30 tax increases on education, as voters were promised.”
Inland courts, which endured major funding during the state’s lean years, stand to benefit from Brown’s spending plan, which allocates another $180 million to the judicial branch.
Budget cuts forced San Bernardino County Superior Court to close courthouses in Twin Peaks, Big Bear and Needles and reduce services in Barstow. Riverside County Superior Court slashed services for traffic citations and court services in Temecula and Blythe, and individual courtrooms were closed in Palm Springs, Corona, Indio, and Riverside.
It’s too early to say how much of the $180 million will help local courts. But the increase is “a positive turning point,” said San Bernardino Presiding Judge Marsha Slough.
“Because we took those painful steps, we are in a much healthier place to begin to assure that we are providing access to justice to the citizens were supposed to serve,” she said.
Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, R-Big Bear Lake, said the court cuts particularly hurt his San Bernardino County district.
“I am hopeful that this additional funding will provide the resources needed to reopen these facilities,” he said.
More than $1.2 billion is included for adult education, career technical education and workforce development.
That’s welcome news to Jamil Dada, a Moreno Valley Chamber of Commerce board member who sits on the California Workforce Investment Board.
The new funding, Dada said, meshes well with Congress’ recent re-authorization of the Workforce Investment Act and a shift away from emphasizing four-year universities in favor of apprenticeship training and two-year colleges.
In a statement, Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside said the budget “includes a strong commitment to workforce education and California Community Colleges.”
“I am pleased to see the crucial funding needed to improve access to career technical education and transfer programs, in an ongoing effort to enhance student outcomes and success rates,” he said.
California’s community college system would get another $800 million in Brown’s budget.
The budget does not address the 2011 loss of vehicle license fee revenue to local governments, something that hit the new cities of Jurupa Valley, Eastvale, Menifee and Wildomar especially hard.
Brown has vetoed two attempts to restore the funding. But Roth, who represents Jurupa Valley and Eastvale, is trying again with another bill.
“I’m hoping that the governor’s office feels we’re healthy enough in our financial future that (restoring vehicle license fee money) won’t break the bank,” said Riverside County Supervisor Marion Ashley, who represents Menifee.
The governor’s budget now goes to the Legislature, which faces a June 15 deadline to pass it. A revised version of the spending plan comes out in May.
Staff writer Mark Muckenfuss contributed to this report.