Last week, the center of the budget universe moved upstairs at the State Capitol as budget subcommittees in the Senate and Assembly held hearings to explore all aspects of Gov. Newsom’s plan to close the budget deficit he pegs at $54 billion.
A few interesting developments foreshadow what may be a bit of rough sailing ahead for Newsom in the coming weeks as some lawmakers are showing they are not content to sit back and rubber stamp the Governor’s budget plan.
Today, the Assembly will hold a very unusual session to discuss its budget approach called a “Committee of the Whole” meeting. Essentially, the entire State Assembly will be meeting as if it were a policy committee, rather than holding a traditional floor hearing. Instead of debating legislation, Members will have more leeway to share their perspective on the budget crisis and what the state should do much like in a committee hearing.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon told the Sacramento Bee that, “this process will allow all members of the Assembly the opportunity to perform our duties effectively, based on a common understanding of the problem and potential resolutions before us.”
Upon learning this, a friend sent me a text that the pending Committee of the Whole meeting reminded her of the annual “Festivus Airing of Grievances” made famous on “Seinfeld.” Expect to hear a lot of airing of grievances from lawmakers from both parties today about spending and tax proposals, but not a lot of progress made toward reaching final budget consensus.
Even before the May Revise was announced, the Assembly Budget Committee said in a memo that Assembly Democrats planned to release their own budget plan by this Friday. This is in addition to a budget plan released shortly before the May Revise by Senate Democrats.
Other cracks in Democratic unity showed in a Senate Budget Committee hearing last week. As I’ve written previously, Senate Budget Committee chair Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, has been a principled voice in this year’s budget process calling for more transparency and accountability from the administration in how they spend the billions in funds appropriated by the Legislature to address the COVID-19 crisis.
As Newsom continues to catch heat for his nearly $1 billion mask contract, Mitchell signaled that she is unwilling to sign another blank check for the administration much longer.
The Sacramento Bee reported that Mitchell challenged Department of Finance officials who urged the Legislature to approve another roughly $3 billion in COVID-19-related spending and give Newsom free rein on how to spend the money.
“I think it’s very important that the administration find a way to balance your ability to respond timely with acknowledging the role the Legislature must play,” she said.
Mitchell’s skepticism was backed by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst, which wrote in unusually strong terms in its initial overview of the Governor’s May Revise that, “we urge the Legislature to jealously guard its constitutional role and authority.”
The day after the release of the May Revise, Newsom held an unusual “Big 5” meeting that is probably the new normal of an era of Democratic supermajorities with Rendon, Mitchell, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins and Assembly Budget Committee chair Phil Ting. No Republicans were invited as was the case in the old Big 5 meetings of an era past.
If one of those TV body language experts examined the photos from meeting in Rendon’s tweet, they’d conclude that lawmakers are clearly testing Newsom’s mettle in what is his first difficult budget fight. The Governor surely wishes that all 4 leaders will each channel their inner Elvis and engage in “a little less conversation and a lot more action.”
One thing is clear – a lot of difficult and complex budget work remains as lawmakers work to resolve their differences on a spending plan that can be voted on by the June 15th constitutional deadline.
Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s senior director of communications and the Sacramento office.