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June 13, 2014
Editorial: Here's to another year of civil budget making in Sacramento

capital_gains.JPG(June 13 - By the Editorial Board)

As Father's Day approaches, we give thanks for small gifts.

And as California lawmakers and their staffs sacrifice their weekends for a Sunday vote on a state budget, may we say, yet again, how much we appreciate the lack of money drama this year?

Yes, there have been sticking points. And yes, details are still being negotiated. But for four years in a row, California's budget season has been joyfully normal.

Kudos mostly go, of course, to California voters, who in 2010 stopped requiring a gridlock-inducing, two-thirds legislative majority just to do the state's financial business.

Since then, the simple majority rule has been the gift that keeps on giving - and the additional provision that, if lawmakers don't pass a budget on time, they won't get paid.

But credit where credit is due: The budget on which legislators will vote this weekend looks to be a good one, negotiated by a governor and legislative leaders who made smart, thoughtful choices.

For instance, the proposed deal includes not only a reserve but also a $3 billion-or-so rainy-day fund. It also applies $10 billion or more to the state's "wall of debt."

Lawmakers also adhered to Gov. Jerry Brown's conservative revenue projections, so that no one would be tempted toward champagne spending on a rice-cake income.

Even so, if the proposed $156.4 billion in spending gets the OK, California will have made some historic investments, from an expansion in early childhood education that at last moves the needle on universal preschool to a plan that could finally put some brakes on this state's fossil-fuel addiction.

Although high-speed rail has gotten most of the attention, the biggest chunk of cap-and-trade money would be earmarked for projects that help people get out of their cars in their neighborhoods in the short term - transit-friendly housing, more walkable streets, commuter rail systems to connect to the bullet train.

And about that train: It's a good thing. Decades from now, when Californians are zipping from L.A. to San Francisco, toasting the economic boost it has created, we'll appreciate this early investment. (Remember how subways and light rail were never going to happen in Los Angeles?)

Meanwhile, a smart $100 million or so will go toward mental health care in the criminal justice system, including money for mental health courts. Another $250 million will go toward high school vocational education. All of those are good, and will be part of the legacy of outgoing Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

The most vulnerable also get help, with restored support for caregivers in the foster care system, for CalWORKs recipients and for home care workers. And with spending triggers that kick in for the UC system, community colleges and the court system if revenue proves higher than expected, even this year's losers are left with some hope.

One demerit: The requirement that public schools spend down their reserves may make teachers' unions happy, but it sure takes the "local" out of local control.

Otherwise, who knew budget-making could be so civil?

Here's hoping lawmakers finish early this weekend. If so, they can consider this their thank-you note.