Assembly Gives Lukewarm Response to Newsom's Budget Proposal

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra at the California State Capitol on Aug. 16, 2019, in Sacramento. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget got a lukewarm response from state Assembly members Tuesday during a rare committee of the whole hearing.

The Assembly has not convened in that way for 25 years. The process allows all members to comment on the governor's budget proposal before they must vote on a final bill. The Legislature is working with a shortened timeline after taking a long recess because of COVID-19.

Newsom’s plan attempts to close a projected $54 billion budget deficit brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Lawmakers acknowledged they’ll have to make difficult choices. But there was criticism over slashes to education and the social safety net, among other things.

Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, said Newsom’s budget proposes short-term cuts that will cause long-lasting pain.

“It feels like we just dusted off the plan from the last recession and are using the same playbook," Wood said. "There also feels like an over dependence on the federal government with an unpredictable administration.”

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Newsom has proposed $14 billion worth of cuts that could be eliminated if the federal government provides more assistance to the state.

“Only the federal government has the capacity to really mitigate the most difficult reductions states and local governments are going to have to make to balance their budgets in the next several years,” said Keely Bosler, Newsom’s chief budget officer.

Gabriel Petek, an analyst with the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, noted that any new money from the federal government would likely run out after one or two years. Petek’s office says the state is facing budget deficits through at least 2024.

“In that case, the Legislature will once again be faced with a structural issue when that funding begins to phase out,” Petek said.

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Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, R-Big Bear, said he's concerned the proposal cedes too much power to the governor. He notes the Legislature gave Newsom more than $1 billion to fight the pandemic before it recessed, which Obernolte said was appropriate.

"However, the governor is asking us today to give him an additional $3 billion of spending authority," Obernolte said. "And in addition to that, to give him authority to spend the $10 billion of federal reimbursement funds that come back from the federal government in ways that he sees fit."

Obernolte said the Legislature has a constitutional duty to oversee how tax dollars are spent.

Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, said it was wrong for Newsom to slash health care spending during a pandemic.

“I consider the proposal put before the Legislature by the governor and (the Department of Finance) to represent a worst-case scenario,” Gray said. “It makes cuts that are perhaps more painful than necessary while offering little in the way of creative revenue generation, conservation or reform."

Gray was one of the few lawmakers to offer an alternative plan, proposing the Legislature legalize sports betting as a way to generate an extra $2 billion to help eliminate some of the proposed $14 billion in cuts.

Lawmakers have until June 15 to pass a balanced budget.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.