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California’s schools lose big in Newsom’s budget

(LAT)

It’s easy to get lost in the numbers that make up the California state budget — dozens of mandates, thousands of programs, billions of dollars. And few programs have more complex funding rules than public education.

But step back and compare Gov. Gavin Newsom‘s new budget plan with the amount that California schools need just to keep existing operations going for another academic year and the crisis facing kids, families and educators becomes crystal clear.

An estimate by the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office concludes that K-12 schools and community colleges need about $82 billion in the fiscal year that begins July 1 just to maintain what analysts call the “current service level.” Keep in mind that’s just existing expenses plus inflation costs and changes in school attendance.

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Now consider Newsom’s new budget. It proposes funding of $70.5 billion — $11.5 billion less than current operations. And even the current operations would suffer, as Newsom is asking lawmakers to cut $3.6 billion from the education budget year that ends on June 30.

That’s a $15.1-billion reduction, making a strong case that schools would be the biggest losers as California’s economy reels from the effects of the coronavirus shutdown.

‘These are not normal numbers’

Newsom now becomes the fifth consecutive California governor to face the difficult task of rallying support in the Legislature and the public for taking the bitter medicine of deep cuts in a variety of programs to resolve a multibillion-dollar deficit. While the state heads into this crisis in perhaps its best short-term fiscal shape ever, the tough road ahead will reshape its history.

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Advocates for schools expected a lean budget, but not one that stripped away so much, so fast. And they didn’t mince words about what might lie ahead as campuses across California wrestle with how to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The magnitude of these cuts simply won’t let schools reopen under the conditions that exist,” said Kevin Gordon, a longtime education lobbyist in Sacramento.

“And if schools don’t reopen, our economy can’t fully reopen,” said Xilonin Cruz-Gonzalez, president of the California School Boards Assn. and a board member for the Azusa Unified School District, a school system in Los Angeles County.

Newsom didn’t mince words about the crisis, either, saying that his advisors believe unemployment in the state will peak at 24.5% in the coming weeks, a devastating blow to families and services alike.

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“These are not normal numbers, even in a state so familiar with the vagaries of revenue increases and declines,” he said Thursday.

While his budget offers help to schools, it could be more limited than initially portrayed. Newsom proposes using $4 billion from California’s share of the federal coronavirus relief funds for education needs, but some school analysts don’t think all campuses will benefit.

His plan also assumes a portion of expected funds will simply be paid in the future, leaving schools to dip into their own reserves or borrow cash. And the governor wants the state to pick up a small piece of what school districts will pay over the next two years toward employee pensions, money that was supposed to help get a jump on some long-term pension obligations.

Finally, Newsom wants to boost school funding in the future — promising extra money to schools later, when (presumably) there’s enough tax revenue to do so. “It will communicate very clearly, it should, to these [school] districts that these cuts are not permanent,” the governor said Thursday on those future commitments.

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That may be, but again: $15 billion in reduced funding is a huge blow to schools. And it’s one the Legislature may not agree with once budget negotiations wrap up early next month.

California’s pitch for federal cash

The political punditry world has mused for weeks why Newsom has seemed unwilling to join his fellow Democrats in criticizing President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus emergency. Could it have partly been with the knowledge that California would need financial help to shore up state and local government services?

Newsom’s budget lays out $14 billion in spending cuts that he said can be canceled if Trump and Congress deliver a new round of coronavirus relief money. “These are cuts that can be triggered and eliminated, with a stroke of a pen” in Trump signing a bill, he said.

(Note: This isn’t the first time we’ve seen so-called trigger cuts in a governor’s budget. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown laid out $6 billion in cuts in his 2012 spending plan that would take effect if voters rejected the temporary taxes under that year’s Proposition 30 in November. They approved the ballot measure, and the cuts were canceled.)

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House Democrats passed a $3-trillion relief plan late last week, though it appears a non-starter with Republicans. Newsom, who appeared on CNN on Sunday, didn’t let his generally non-confrontational approach to Trump get in the way of a sharp retort to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying the House plan to help states is “dead on arrival.”

“The next time they want to salute and celebrate our heroes, our first responders, our police officers and firefighters, consider the fact that they are the first ones that will be laid off by cities and counties,” Newsom said. “We have got to square our rhetoric with the reality.”

Democrats in the California Legislature are hoping for more than the $14 billion requested by Newsom. An internal document drafted by state Senate Democrats last week envisions between $33 billion and $66 billion over the next two fiscal years in federal help, combined with spending cuts and drawing down the state’s cash reserves.

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National lightning round

— Taking a thinly veiled swipe at Trump, former President Barack Obama on Saturday decried racial inequities revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic and told graduating college students that the crisis has “torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they are doing.”

— Democrats believe Arizona is trending their way, and a victory there in November by Joe Biden could offset Trump’s electoral college gains if he remains strong in the Midwest.

— Biden’s pledges to “change the system” echo Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and reflect a new American reality.

Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan says he’s no longer seeking the Libertarian nomination for president.

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Jeff Sessions, the former Alabama senator trying to regain his seat, tells voters why he recused himself from the Russia investigation while he was attorney general.

— A coronavirus vaccine by winter would require everything “to break in the right way,” a leading expert said on Sunday.

— The House has approved a package of historic rule changes so its members can be WFH — like many Americans, “working from home.”

Essential California politics

— Two unprecedented proposals to help Californians weather the fiscal storm unleashed by the coronavirus crisis were unveiled last week by Democrats in the state Senate: one to help struggling renters, the other to create a $25-billion economic recovery fund by issuing long-term income tax vouchers.

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— The California Supreme Court refused to block the state from transferring immigrant inmates to federal immigration centers during the coronavirus pandemic.

— Newsom on Friday appealed to a group of Native American tribes to reconsider plans to reopen their casinos in the coming days, warning that the coronavirus poses a continuing threat to public health.

— Days after federal prosecutors described a Los Angeles City Council member as the ringleader of a “criminal enterprise,” a chorus of public officials called on Councilman Jose Huizar to resign.

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