Closed-door, last-minute state budget decisions raise concerns
Assemblyman Jeff Gorell was in his Capitol office Thursday afternoon when a staffer walked in with a list of new proposals that were being wrapped into the state budget.
One of the items was $2.7 million for a pool in Calexico, a small city on the border with Mexico. Gorell had never heard of the proposal, but he needed to cast a vote on the issue in just a few hours. So he did the logical thing — he Googled it.
Turns out, the money was intended to help replace a pool destroyed by an earthquake four years ago.
“Researching the California budget via Google is a terrible way to enact a state budget,” said Gorell, a Republican from Camarillo. “There’s no better example of a lack of transparency than the last-minute items that are thrown in during the budget process.”
The $2.7 million is a sliver of the roughly $156.4-billion spending plan expected to be approved by the Legislature on Sunday. It’s also a reminder of how the Democrats who dominate the Capitol put the finishing touches on the budget — quickly, quietly and with almost no input from the minority party.
Although California’s finances have improved dramatically in recent years and budget negotiations are now finished by the deadline, concerns persist about decisions made secretly and rushed into law.
“Unless you’re someone who’s well-connected in politics, you literally don’t know what they’re discussing,” said Phillip Ung, a spokesman at California Forward, a public policy group. “It’s so insular.”
Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) defended the budget process, noting that most of the issues are discussed publicly in committee hearings for months before a final vote is taken. However, he said, the final steps must be taken behind closed doors.
“You have to negotiate them in one-on-one, or two-on-one conversations,” he said. “That’s the way this works.”
Democrats don’t need any Republican votes for the budget. A constitutional amendment approved in 2010 lowered the threshold for passing a spending plan from two-thirds to a simple majority, a change that Democrats say has prevented the minority party from have disproportionate influence.
In the final days of negotiations this year, lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown added $5 million to help Los Angeles host the Special Olympics next year and $3 million for research into the emerging field of precision medicine. But it’s not just relatively minor spending items that are included at the last minute; there are also complex policy proposals.
The administration introduced a plan to limit the amount of money school districts can keep in their reserves, just hours before it was vetted by the joint budget committee Wednesday.
“When this news broke, it was a shock to us,” said Mark Ecker, superintendent of the Fountain Valley School District. “It came out of the blue. It was totally unfair.”
The esoteric proposal would take effect only if voters pass a ballot measure in November strengthening the state’s rainy-day fund. Since a portion of the statewide fund would be dedicated for schools, the proposal would limit the size of school districts’ individual reserves in years after deposits are made.
H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for Brown’s Department of Finance, called it “a statewide mechanism that is designed to cushion dramatic drops in revenue that affect all school districts.”
But school officials say that wouldn’t leave enough money in the bank if revenue unexpectedly plummets.
“Who proposed this and why?” said Josephine Lucey, president of the California School Boards Assn. “There’s no logic to it. It’s fiscally irresponsible.”
She described the proposal as a ploy by the California Teachers Assn., the state’s powerful teacher union, to make more money available at the negotiating table when contracts are being hashed out.
Palmer would not say if the union suggested the measure. A teachers association spokesman, Mike Myslinski, said the union supports the proposal.
“Districts get public money for the purpose of spending it in the classroom, not for hoarding it,” he said.
Other parts of the budget process showed labor’s influence in the Capitol. The spending plan includes $3.2 million to subsidize a healthcare plan used by the United Farm Workers, the organization once led by Cesar Chavez.
The union’s healthcare falls short of requirements under President Obama’s federal overhaul, and Democratic lawmakers want to help it buy supplemental insurance so it can keep operating. The subsidy, they say, will prevent the farmworkers and their families from ending up on public healthcare rolls at even greater cost to the state.
As for the money for the pool in Calexico, state Sen. Ben Hueso (D-San Diego) has sought the funding for months. His spokesman, Lourdes Jimenez, said building a new swimming facility would help prevent children from swimming in dangerous irrigation canals.
“It was a public health issue,” Jimenez said. “This isn’t some earmark … from a lobbyist.”
Times staff writer Phil Willon contributed to this report.
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