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With a powerful supermajority, California Democrats want to spend, spend, spend. Will Newsom rein them in?

With a powerful supermajority, California Democrats want to spend, spend, spend. Will Newsom rein them in?
The governor-elect, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, watches the Assembly session at the Capitol on Dec. 3 in Sacramento. (Rich Pedroncelli / AP)

The new two-year legislative session wasn’t even one day old when Democrats introduced bills to spend countless billions of tax dollars.

Money to provide Medi-Cal healthcare coverage for immigrants of all ages living here illegally. A big boost in K-12 school funding. Free community college tuition in a student’s second year.

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Introducing a bill is easy. From there, it’s usually a long, arduous journey to final passage and a governor’s signature. But those proposals apparently reflect a dominant Democratic mood: The money’s there. Spend it before it’s eroded by a recession.

Right now the state vault is spilling over. The nonpartisan legislative analyst projects a budget surplus of nearly $15 billion. Additionally, there’s a so-called rainy day fund of about $14.5 billion that’s a hedge against the economy tanking.

The total state budget is around $200 billion, $139 billion of it in the main general fund checking account.

Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom spoke the language of fiscal conservatism last week as the Legislature met to organize.

“We are eight years in this bull market and that’s a reality all of us have to accept,” Newsom told reporters. “You’re seeing a global economy that is slowing down. We all have to prepare for that. So I don’t think you’re going to see something dramatically different … from me than you have seen in the past with Gov. [Jerry] Brown.”

Brown’s hobby as governor seemed to be vetoing spending bills. But he still aggressively pushed two embattled, monstrous infrastructure projects: the $77-billion bullet train and $17-billion twin water tunnels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Newsom has said he wants to scale back both mega-projects.

Speaking to reporters, the Democrat also talked like the candidate who advocated expensive universal healthcare and early childhood education.

“That said,” the governor-elect continued after implying he’d be a Brown clone on spending, “conditions have advantaged our ability to make investments in areas where, frankly, we need to make investments. And that’s where I’ll put my attention.”

Then, as a horde of spending bills was being introduced, Newsom told the Sacramento Bee: “All of this will be whittled down and we all will live within our means. We’re not going to deviate from being fiscally prudent.

“Even if you wanted to provide universal preschool, you could not achieve that in the immediate term. It would take years and years.”

There will be many impatient Democrats, however. They haven’t had this much power in Sacramento for 136 years. It’s one-party rule-plus. Democrats occupy roughly three-fourths of the seats in both legislative houses, and only a two-thirds supermajority is needed to pass tax increases.

But don’t fret about a tax hike, Brown advised right after the election.

“The chances of getting the Legislature to vote by two-thirds on new taxes is very, very limited and unlikely,” the four-term governor told reporters.

“The fact is, it’s a simple formula: The more Democrats win legislative seats, the more conservative are the ones who win…. People don’t have to worry. If there is a two-thirds vote for a tax, it will be very popular or it won’t happen.”

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Perhaps. But Democrats may not be sensing much political risk after riding the blue tsunami on election day. In 2020, the political climate could be even sunnier for California Democrats because President Trump probably will be on the ballot drawing his haters to the polls.

Brown says only a “very popular” tax could pass. Would that include a tax on semiautomatic guns? Maybe in urban areas. But in suburban and rural competitive legislative districts, voting to tax gun sales could be dangerous.

Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-San Rafael) introduced a bill to tax the purchase of semiautomatic weapons, the kind often used in mass shootings, including the recent Thousand Oaks bar massacre that killed 12 people. He’s thinking about a $25 tax that would fund gun violence prevention programs.

Even more controversial, I suspect, will be a proposal to extend Medi-Cal coverage to adult immigrants without legal status. Kids are already covered up to age 19. Covering 1.8 million adults would cost an estimated $3 billion a year.

One good argument for it is that placing undocumented adults under Medi-Cal is less expensive than caring for them in emergency rooms, where they are currently treated. Also, we don’t want sick people walking around spreading disease.

The other side contends that if California starts providing health insurance for undocumented people, the state will quickly become a magnet for illegal immigration. Opponents also argue that American tax dollars should be spent on people living here legally.

One bill author is Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno), a former emergency room doctor. “Working on the front lines of healthcare,” the lawmaker says, he has seen “gross inequality — people whose lives are threatened or ruined because of their inability to access healthcare…. I hope the incoming administration will be bold … a beacon for the rest of the United States.”

Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) introduced legislation to gradually raise K-12 school funding by $35 billion a year. He says that would place California in the top 10 states for per-pupil spending. The state general fund now provides $56 billion annually.

Two questions: Where would the extra money come from? How about throwing in some education reform?

We’ll find out which Newsom emerges — whether he can corral the Legislature and stand up to the spending lobby, especially labor.

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