Capitol Alert

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While Gov. Jerry Brown sold his budget plan to outside groups in Southern California, state lawmakers greeted his proposal with a skeptical eye Thursday inside the Capitol.

In a Senate budget committee hearing, Democrats raised concerns not only about Brown's cuts to schools and health and welfare programs, but also about the strength of his revenue projections, which the nonpartisan legislative analyst has called optimistic.

One Democrat, Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood, took issue with Brown's tax hikes because he said the sales tax increase would hurt the poor.

"I understand the politics, but in terms of policy and benefiting poor people, I think this does them a disservice," Wright said. "If somebody makes $10,000 a year or somebody makes $300,000 a year, the sales tax on toilet paper is the same. I'm just saying that disadvantages the people I represent in Watts or Compton."

But Wright also questioned the idea of raising income taxes on the rich because he said it makes state revenues too volatile.

Republicans challenged Brown finance aide Michael Cohen over why the governor wants to raise taxes when the Department of Finance expects the deficit to shrink naturally as the economy slowly recovers. Sen. Bill Emmerson, R-Hemet, vice chairman of the Senate budget committee, said the governor's tax plan would eventually provide the state a surplus.

Cohen said the taxes, which Finance pegs at $6.9 billion annually, would not provide a huge amount of excess money because the state constitution requires a significant share of new revenue growth to go to education to reverse past cuts. Cohen also said the state would use any extra money toward paying down debt.

But Emmerson seemed skeptical that would happen. Republicans believe that advocates for health and welfare programs will want new money for additional services.

"You have no provision in there to pay off the wall of debt," Emmerson said. "Where is it in your spending plan that you mandatorily pay off the wall of debt?"

"It's the governor's commitment to do so," Cohen said. "We don't have a statute that governs many things four years from now, but it's the governor's commitment to do so."

Democratic lawmakers questioned why Brown would cut items ranging from the Commission on the Status of Women to funding for school buses and transitional kindergarten.

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, wondered whether the governor's scenario of cutting schools if the taxes fail is avoidable. Leno cited Brown's insistence that he set up his tax plan as such because schools consume so much of the state budget.

Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor stopped him there. "They're 40 percent of the budget, not 90 percent. You don't have to do 90 percent schools. You can do a lesser amount. It's just that obviously there are tradeoffs."


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