Budget reflects Brown is sour on ballot measures

As Gov. Jerry Brown introduced his latest spending plan Thursday, he took a break from his typical warnings against exuberant legislative spending to put a damper on exuberance at the ballot box.

Brown sounded a distinctly sour note on pending ballot measures that would extend taxes on high earners, raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour and finance billions in new school construction.

“It's a clear signal he wants to negotiate with the Legislature rather than see these issues on the ballot — that's always been his preferred approach and where he's had the most success,” said Steve Maviglio, a Democratic strategist who served as spokesman for former Gov. Gray Davis.

It's a message that initiative proponents will probably take to heart, Maviglio said. “To have a popular governor oppose your ballot measure is never a place where you want to be.”

“I'm not going to talk too much” about ballot measures, Brown said early in his news conference Thursday, but when he did, it wasn't to offer compliments.

He warned that raising the statewide minimum wage to $15 an hour — as two potential ballot measures seek to do — would cost the state $4 billion and could lead to a string of unintended consequences.

"These are all good things. The government does not consciously do bad things. But too many goods too quickly becomes bad," Brown said, adding that in times of economic recession, "you'll find jobs have got to be cut, particularly in lower-income areas ... like the Central Valley."

Backers of the higher minimum wage plans said they saw no conflict between their proposals and the governor's calls for caution.

Steve Trossman, spokesman for SEIU-United Healthcare Workers, which backs a proposal that would phase in the wage increase until 2021, labeled his group's initiative “responsible.”

"In principle, we completely agree with the governor that it should be done responsibly," he said.

The other initiative, proposed by the SEIU California State Council, would also incrementally increase the wage, as well as expand the state's mandated paid sick leave. Neither initiative has qualified yet for the ballot.

Trossman said his group was not daunted by Brown's words of caution about a higher minimum wage. “We feel very confident that if it's put in front of voters, they'll approve it,” he said.

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) said efforts to increase the minimum wage have taken on momentum, be it in statewide ballot initiatives or local wage hikes in places like Los Angeles. She said the budget should prepare for a $15 statewide minimum wage. (The current minimum wage is $10 as of last week.)

"We could either start that discussion and dialogue now ... [or] not be prepared to cover the cost, and that’s not prudent," Atkins said.

Brown was similarly unenthused about a proposal to continue the income taxes on high earners, which were initially approved by voters under Proposition 30 in 2012. A coalition of powerful interest groups, including the California Teachers Assn., are seeking to put such an extension on the ballot this year.

The governor criticized the proposed initiative, which would exempt those tax revenues from being included in the state's rainy-day fund.

“Those tax measures don't incorporate what people said they wanted by an overwhelming supermajority,” Brown said. “That, in my opinion, is a fatal flaw.”

Gale Kaufman, a Democratic strategist who is running the initiative campaign, said the governor's spending proposal illustrated how Proposition 30 taxes have helped improve the state's fiscal health and how important an extension of those income taxes would be for future budgets.

“An extension of these Prop. 30 revenues is a critical component to keeping our state on track and not letting us slide back into years of deficits and cuts,” Kaufman said in a statement. “We look forward to more conversations with the governor and are hopeful we can address his concerns.”

The governor also took a disapproving tone on a $9-billion school bond that has already qualified for the November ballot.

The proposal is sponsored by the Coalition for Adequate School Housing, which promotes school construction, and the California Building Industry Assn. The bulk of the money would go toward building and modernizing K-12 facilities, but $2 billion is included for community college projects.

Brown said the bond measure would do nothing to change the state program that oversees construction and maintenance of school facilities — a process, he said, that favors rich school districts over poor ones. He said lawmakers should work to craft an alternative plan.

"The Legislature could do a better job than the developers who put that one together," Brown said. 

Proponents of the bond note there has not been a statewide school bond since 2006 and there is a growing need to build or improve existing school facilities. There is a $2-billion backlog of K-12 projects already approved, and the state has estimated at least $17 billion in future construction needs over the next decade.

This week, supporters rolled out a string of high-profile endorsers, including the California Chamber of Commerce and the State Building and Construction Trades Council, a labor coalition. The bond's supporters said Thursday they were undeterred by Brown's comments.

"The bond qualified by Californians for Quality Schools continues the state’s highly successful school facilities funding program, and also sufficiently addresses the billions in backlogged project applications and future identified need," said campaign spokesperson Erin Shaw. "We are strongly committed to passing the $9 billion bond in November so that districts are adequately funded to build new schools where needed and also upgrade older classrooms with the resources necessary to prepare students for college and the workforce."

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