Homeless, Cal Grants, Water, School Breakfast & Lunch, Internet
By John Laird, California State Senator, District 17
The California state budget is confusing in normal times. Due to an over-reliance on income tax, state revenues overperform the economy in good times and underperform the economy in bad times. Why? Because just a few wealthy Californians account for a large share of state revenues.
This year, a completely new scenario has emerged. As millions of Californians struggled through the shelter in place – losing their jobs as businesses closed or paused — the wealthiest Californians scored big in the stock market.
The result is a projected $75.7 billion surplus for this year. With an additional $25 billion in federal relief, California is farther ahead in projected revenues than in any previous budget. Half of that $75 billion in revenue automatically go to schools and to the “Rainy Day Fund’ created under Gov. Jerry Brown.
Given this situation, how do we address California’s needs as we move to finalize the budget by June 15?
First and foremost, those most in need due to the pandemic must be our central priority. Earlier this year, for the first time in history, California passed its own stimulus program to provide support to struggling businesses and citizens across the Central Coast, as well as the entire state. In the budget now proposed by the Governor, an additional $12 billion is proposed to be returned to those most in need through stimulus payments and support.
The Governor’s proposed budget for the remaining surplus will help all Californians address critical needs:
- The updated budget makes the largest investment to address homelessness in California history — $11.87 billion over two years. Project Roomkey worked to house homeless individuals and families over the last year. A proposal to spend an additional $7 billion for Homekey will further expand the types of housing available to those living with mental illness, seniors, and veterans.
- A proposal to invest $5.1 billion over several years for a water resilience package to expand and protect water supplies in California as we confront another drought year. The funding would invest in drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, water recycling projects, immediate drought support to communities, and environmental restoration projects to help vulnerable species survive a changing climate.
We must also backstop water agencies who have lost revenue during the pandemic as customers were unable to pay their water bills.
- As the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear, we cannot return to business as usual in our approach to education of California’s next generation of innovators and leaders. The budget must make meaningful investments in our financial aid system and enact the debt free college plan. This would allow for over 300,000 more students, particularly non-traditional and older students, to be eligible for Cal Grants. Expanding Cal Grant eligibility for students in both public and private universities would be investment of about $1 billion. I am committed to working with my colleagues and the administration to find a path to success for this important program.
- The Legislature has the opportunity for significant investment in K-12 education. As Chair of the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Education, I advocate that we require Local Education Agencies to participate in the National School Lunch Program, as they would be able to offer breakfast and lunch to all students, regardless of income level. This would modernize our approach to school nutrition and ensure any student who wanted a meal would get one. Further, this would eliminate stigma for students who receive school meals and alleviate barriers faced by immigrant families who are reluctant to provide information in order to receive meals, finally removing “school lunch debt” from our vocabulary. If this crucial investment gets included in the budget, it will cost between $500 million to $1 billion.
- The digital divide continues to persist across rural and urban California. In response, this budget makes significant investments in broadband connectivity, an issue made even more important as schools and workplaces were forced to close their doors and relocate to homes, garages, or anywhere there was a signal. Students should not be faced with no option other than to sit in front of storefronts to access online classrooms, nor should our increasingly digital workforce struggle to tap into adequate broadband speeds to contribute to our economy. To address this inequity, between those able to fully embrace our technologically driven state and those who remain disconnected, California is investing $7 billion over three years as part of a plan to expand broadband infrastructure, increase affordability, and enhance access to broadband for all Californians. Expanding and enhancing internet connectivity is a long overdue step toward the future.
- And also of great importance, this revised budget includes $24.4 billion in reserves, which as last year demonstrated, is vital in budgeting through difficult circumstances. The proposed budget will continue to pay down the state’s long-term retirement liabilities, paying down over $10 billion in liabilities over the next 4 years.
As legislators, it is important that we invest in today’s needs and better prepare the state of California for tomorrow’s challenges and opportunities — both in terms of investments to meet our biggest challenges, returning money to those in need, and saving money to be ready for the next downturn.
As a veteran of the state’s budget cycles, I can say unequivocally that this spending plan likely poses once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to make investments that will benefit California for decades to come. That’s what we should aim for as the legislature fine-tunes the Governor’s proposal.
State Sen. John Laird represents the 17th District, Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo counties and parts of Monterey and Santa Clara counties. To contact him, see sd17.senate.ca.gov/
For a comprehensive budget analysis: tpgonlinedaily.com/state-budget-surplus-76b-or-38b/