By Nicholas Iovino
(CN) — California lawmakers passed a record $267 billion budget bill Monday that boosts spending on programs designed to fight climate change, prevent wildfires, build affordable housing and stimulate the economy with direct payments to taxpayers.
“This is a budget I believe we will look back at very proudly,” said Assemblyman Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee. “It’s an opportunity to invest in our state not just next year but really for the next 50 years.”
While the price tag matches the one proposed by Newsom in May, the Legislature’s bill calls for more spending on certain programs, including wildfire response and prevention. Lawmakers raised spending on wildfires to $1 billion, a $292 million increase from Newsom’s proposal.
The legislative package also boosts climate investments to $3.7 billion. That’s $2.4 billion more than Newsom had envisioned in his budget plan.
In a statement Monday, the governor said he is determined to strike a deal with lawmakers. Newsom said he expects the state’s economy to come “roaring back” after a 15-month pandemic that shuttered businesses and put millions of Californians out of work. But he also emphasized the need to maintain a strong fiscal foundation and “plan for the unexpected.”
“I’m grateful for the Legislature’s partnership and am confident we will reach a budget agreement that reflects our shared values and keeps California on a sustainable path of recovery and growth,” Newsom said. “I look forward to working with legislative leaders to reach an agreement that will address California’s longstanding challenges to give every Californian family — regardless of their race or zip code — the opportunity to thrive.”
The budget approved by lawmakers Monday represents a $65 billion increase over last fiscal year’s $202 billion spending plan. The increased funding was made possible by an unexpected $76 billion surplus and $26 billion in federal Covid-19 aid.
To address the state’s intractable homeless problem, lawmakers plan to channel $8.5 billion in new spending for homeless programs, including $1 billion in “flexible” spending for local governments to tackle the crisis.
State lawmakers also included in their budget an extra $1.3 billion to make the state-funded health insurance program Medi-Cal available to all Californians age 50 and up, regardless of immigration status.
The fiscal blueprint additionally provides $8.1 billion in stimulus checks for Californians that make $75,000 or less per year. The direct payments will range from $500 to $1,100 each depending on income and filing status.
“I think this is a budget that really helps Californians who have been so impacted by this pandemic,” said state Senator Nancy Skinner, an East Bay Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee.
The California Assembly approved the historic spending plan in a 57-15 vote. The California State Senate passed it in a 30-8 vote. Several minority Republicans criticized the budget bills for lacking specifics on how money will be spent and failing to reverse tax hikes or fully replenish dollars taken from the state’s rainy day fund last year.
“Looks can be deceiving,” Assemblyman Vince Fong, a Republican from Bakersfield, said on the Assembly floor. “This budget is large but there are serious concerns that this budget is unsustainable. We need to focus on the basics and demand results before we pour billions of precious tax dollars into more new programs and broken systems with no structural reforms.”
State Senator Melissa Melendez, a Republican from Riverside County, questioned if there is a need to move forward with a scheduled gas tax increase for road maintenance at time when gas costs more than $4 per gallon in California. She argued that a gas tax approved in a 2017 ballot measure has already raised $50 billion, far more than the $5 billion it was designed to generate. She also attacked what she characterized as a failure to address the state’s beleaguered Employment Development Division, which doled out more than $10 billion in fraudulent unemployment insurance payments to scammers.
“How can this budget fail to fix the billions of dollars in fraud that have been allowed to fall into the hands of inmates and fraudsters instead of unemployed Californians who actually need the assistance,” Menendez said.
Democratic leaders of the California Assembly and state Senate portrayed the budget approval in a different light. In a joint statement, Senate President pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins, a San Diego Democrat, and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Democrat from Lakewood, touted the budget’s inclusion of stimulus payments, aid for small businesses and investments in childcare, housing, wildfire prevention and addressing climate change.
“The Governor proposed a strong budget in the May Revision, and we are proud of the improved version approved by the Legislature today,” the two Democratic leaders said. “We look forward to working with the Governor to finalize the budget in the coming days as we build a greater tomorrow for California.”
The governor has until July 1 to sign or make changes to the $267 billion spending plan.