Gov. Jerry Brown at the Governor's Mansion. (Monica Lam/KQED)
Gov. Jerry Brown. (Monica Lam/KQED)

It was, to borrow the phrase, a California budget season that ended not with a bang but a whimper.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature on a $156.357 billion state spending plan, ten days before the new fiscal year begins, marks the end to one of the least combative budget seasons in modern California history. Brown signed the budget in San Diego Friday morning, proclaiming it a sensible blueprint for the road ahead.

“This on-time budget provides for today and saves for the future,” said Brown, who traveled to the home city of newly sworn-in Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) to put pen to paper in the signing of SB 852.

The budget (PDF) sets a new record for spending in the state’s primary general fund, but it’s less spending than proposed by Democratic leaders in the Legislature. It boosts K-14 school spending by $10 billion, thanks to improved tax revenues. And it represents a negotiated truce between legislators and Brown on several issues, from expanding preschool and welfare assistance for low-income families to earmarking a portion of revenues from the auction of carbon emission credits for the state’s beleaguered high speed rail project.

The high speed rail proposal did lead to some debate, as did a late proposal to impose new caps on the cash reserves held by local school districts. But in the end, this was a budget plan that found neither the Legislature nor the governor in a mood for a political fight. The state’s recovering tax revenues made it easy to avoid those kinds of fights; the fact that it’s an election year probably made it a necessity.

Brown also continued his tendency to lightly snip out parts of the budget using his line-item veto power. The governor only made seven changes to the fiscal blueprint; only three had any real dollar value and even those only totaled about $3.2 million; three of the vetoes were simply to correct drafting or language errors.

Jerry Brown continues to hold the modern record for fewest line-item vetoes, even as California gives its governor more of that power than almost any state in the nation. In four of the twelve budgets signed by Brown since 1975 — including this one — he’s vetoed zero dollars in general fund spending (the $3.2 million were in special budget funds). That’s compared to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and even Gov. Gray Davis, who both vetoed billions of dollars in legislative spending during their tenures.

That being said, not everyone is pleased with the 2014-15 state budget.

Doctors and health-care advocates for the poor remain disappointed in the low rates the state pays for providers who see Medi-Cal patients. Those rates were cut during the recession and remain some of the lowest in the  country. The governor’s chief deputy budget director told reporters Friday morning that as many as 70 percent of Medi-Cal patients — as part of the changes brought on by the Affordable Care Act — have been moved out of ‘fee for service’ plans and thus are not being impacted by those low provider rates.

Also still a source of contention: the Brown administration’s push for an eventual cap on the size of local school-district cash reserves, a plan some school groups vow may lead them to oppose the governor’s November ballot measure creating a bigger state budget reserve fund.

The administration argues a lot of school districts are sitting on what it believes are excess reserves. Still, officials admit it’s a new mandate worth future scrutiny.

“We will continue to discuss how to make it more workable,” said deputy budget director Keely Bosler.

Overall, this budget season in Sacramento is far different from what it was just four years ago — when budget bickering delayed a deal until October 10, the latest in history and more than three months into the new fiscal year. This year’s budget is the earliest in modern times.

No one can say for sure what part of the current system is responsible for that change — from 2010’s Proposition 25 that made legislative approval a simple majority (and docked legislators’ paychecks for a late budget) to Democrats firmly holding all the levers of political power in the state Capitol. Regardless, it now means a month-long summer recess of the Legislature will take place, as scheduled, and that lawmakers will then focus their attention on hundreds of bills that must be passed before they adjourn for the year on Aug. 31.


John Myers

John Myers is Senior Editor of KQED's new California Politics and Government Desk.  A veteran of almost two decades of political coverage, he was KQED's longest serving  statehouse bureau chief and recently was political editor for Sacramento's ABC affiliate, News10 (KXTV). John was moderator of the only 2014 gubernatorial debate, and  was named by The Washington Post to two "Best Of" lists: the 2015 list of top state politics reporters and 2014's list of America's most influential statehouse reporters.

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