Democrats Push Social Policy Agenda in Good Budget Times

California Legislative Democrats celebrate the inclusion of social policy issues, including money for child care providers, in the state budget on Tuesday, June 14, 2016. (Katie Orr/KQED)

It was an emotional moment for Democratic state Sen. Holly Mitchell. For four years she’d been working to repeal a decades-old welfare rule that limits aid for children. This year’s $122 billion general fund budget finally funded her efforts. At a news conference Tuesday, she thanked advocates.

“You all make make me glad to be a policymaker today," she said, choking up. "I said I wasn’t going to cry."

Mitchell also took time to thank her colleagues in the Legislative Women's Caucus for helping her push the policy forward. And she singled out one other person.

"I'm going to thank Gov. Brown today," she said, laughing.

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His may have been the most important name on her list. Gov. Jerry Brown has often acted as the roadblock to Democratic efforts to boost spending. His support is crucial when it comes to funding big asks, like repealing this welfare rule (over $220 million a year), setting aside money for affordable housing ($400 million in this budget), or providing more money for child care and preschool (more than $500 million over several years).

But Brown doesn’t always agree to go along with his fellow Democrats, which may be why it took Mitchell four years to get that welfare rule repealed. Dan Schnur directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. He says the lack of a strong Republican Party presence in the Legislature means Brown has to provide the voice of restraint.

“His argument is that these good times aren’t going to last forever," Schnur says. "And if the state spends its money in what he considers to be an irresponsible way, when we hit the next recession the state’s going to end up simply cutting those programs back again.”

And while Republicans may not have much power in the budget debate, they do still have opinions. Assembly Budget Committee Vice Chair Jay Obernolte says his party wants to help the poor and disadvantaged too, but he says a different approach would be more beneficial.

"We think that we ought to first fix the programs that we already have in place before we institute new and costly programs," he says. Obernolte points to the Denti-Cal program as one that needs to be reformed.

Still, USC's Schnur says legislative Democrats will likely keep pushing forward with policy changes until a new recession hits. But Senate Budget Chair Mark Leno argues his party can spend wisely and still prepare for an economic downtown. He points out the state will have more than $8 billion in its reserve accounts after this budget takes effect.

"In the 14 years I've been here in Sacramento, I've never experienced our being as prepared for a downturn as we currently are," he said.

And Leno rejects the notion that Democrats have been on a spending spree. He says during the most recent recession the state was forced to make billions in cuts.

"In fact it’s been a very slow and steady reinvestment process. Nothing happened overnight," Leno said. "We’re in the seventh year of our economic recovery and so it has, for many of us, been too slow.”

And so the majority party will keep chipping away at its budget priorities, hoping Brown and the economy stay on their side.

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