The Riggs Report: Brown’s last budget

Governor’s plan emphasizes saving, not spending

Gov. Jerry Brown was traveling a familiar path this week at the state Capitol when he unveiled his state budget proposal for 2018-19. Instead of spending a healthy general fund surplus, Brown wants to drop $5 billion into the state’s rainy day fund in preparation for the economic downturn that he warned is coming.

“California has faced 10 recessions since World War II, and we must prepare for the 11th,” Brown said in his budget letter to the Legislature. “Let’s not blow it now.”

Here’s something that will give you pause: Brown proposed his first state budget 43 years ago, in 1975. Back then, the general fund budget was $10.4 billion. In 2018, that same budget is now $132 billion.

Since he returned to the Capitol in 2011, after a 28-year absence, Brown has cultivated and honed a reputation as a fiscal tightwad, preaching the virtues of keeping new spending in check as a means of preparing for an eventual economic downturn.

++6 highlights from proposed California state budget

Thanks to that approach, and a healthy economy, the years of annual deficits are now a distant memory.

That tight-fisted approach has sown conflict and frustration among his fellow Democrats, who have pushed, with little success, for an increase in spending on social service and other programs. This year is no different.

Democrats would like to spend more on health care, including for undocumented immigrants, and on college financial aid.

Republicans have chimed in as well, calling for more spending on road repair and to shore up the public pension debt.

But Brown cites tremendous uncertainty, due to fallout from the federal tax cut bill, the potential for more cuts in federal funding for Medi-Cal and a superheated stock market that can’t last.

Brown is proposing to spend some new funds, such as another $3 billion for the state’s poorest school districts. He is also outlining a plan to spend $4.6 billion on road, highway and bridge projects, which will be funded by the state’s new gas tax that he spearheaded through the Legislature last year.

But mostly, Brown is saying no to spending hikes. Will lawmakers be emboldened, in Brown’s final year, to be more confrontational? Maybe. But with his line-item veto authority, and given the Legislature’s lack of political will to attempt an override, Brown has the last word on what spending gets included and what gets cut.

Brown won’t face the voters again, so there is no political fallout by continuing to take a hard line on spending. This time next year, he’ll be retired on his Colusa County ranch.

There will still be lots of flaws in California’s budget, which depends heavily on the ups and downs of the stock market. But it will be somebody else’s turn to deal with it.