Sitting at his desk in a spacious office overlooking the east corridor of the Capitol, Joe Simitian has the pensive look of an accountant approaching tax season.
For nearly 20 minutes, the state senator, who represents parts of Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, has diligently stuck to his talking points. He has expressed tempered optimism about a proposed budget, released four hours earlier by Gov. Jerry Brown, which would aggressively confront California’s $25.4 billion deficit. But now, Simitian’s smile has faded, and he takes off his glasses to squeeze the bridge of his nose.
Having already used the word “painful” a dozen times regarding the proposed budget, Simitian admits the hard truth is that life is going to get worse for many Californians before it gets better. That is doubly true, he says, if Brown is unable to win voter approval for some new tax revenue.
“I think the success of the governor’s approach will rise or fall on his ability to communicate just what the impact of the cuts will be in the absence of that revenue,” Simitian says. “I think the challenges that kind of California would present are literally beyond comprehension for most folks.”
Brown has proposed cutting $12.5 billion in spending—much of which would affect students, state workers and programs aiding the state’s disadvantaged citizens. In addition, he proposes raising $12 billion through a five-year extension of tax hikes approved two years ago by the Legislature.
Without voter approval in June for extending the taxes another half-decade, Simitian says, California will be amputating a limb from a budget that has already been limping along for some time.
In announcing his budget plan Monday, Brown said the taxes are the only way to avoid a doomsday scenario for K-12 education as well as other vital services after years of “gimmicks, tricks and unrealistic expectations. “It’s better that we take our medicine now and get back on balanced footing,” the governor said.
But kick-the-can budgeting has been the norm in Sacramento for decades, and Brown’s belief that a deal can be reached with Republicans regarding taxes might be wishful thinking. “The governor is going to get push-back on that,” Simitian admits. “But I think it’s a wise move for a couple of reasons. First, it’s honest. I think part of the frustration people have had—understandably and appropriately in my view—is the ‘good-enough-for-now’ budgets.
“Let’s be honest with ourselves about the fact that it’s going to take us a period of years, not a year or two, to set things right. I think five years is probably an appropriate judgment call on his part.”
Simitian says its about time California restores some balance between spending and revenue.
“Sometimes the right things happen for the wrong reasons.”
Brown says he plans to meet with business leaders and Republicans in the Legislature to gain consensus about the tax extensions. But whether or not he’s able to do that, he said, he’s fairly confident that the deficit numbers will speak for themselves when voters go to the polls. “I’m just going to lay out the facts, and whatever they decide is going to be the result,” Brown says.
Republicans in the Senate and state Assembly have already voiced their displeasure with the tax extensions, vowing to do everything within their power to kill them.
“Voters in California rejected tax increases at the ballot two years ago and again last November; there is no reason to insult their intelligence,” says Assembly budget vice-chairman Jim Nielsen (R-Redding). “They want to see California tighten its fiscal belt and get spending under control, once and for all.”
Simitian has heard that argument before. “This is a debate I have with some of my Republican colleagues who like to say, ‘Well, look, every business and family needs to learn to live within their means.’ Actually, I don’t think that’s an accurate analogy. Every business and family I’ve ever talked to acknowledges that they have to cut back, but we also have to ask ourselves: What is it we just can’t do without?”
One answer, the senator says, is education. Although the K–12 system, which accounts for nearly half of the state’s expenditures, would be left mostly untouched under Brown’s proposal, the UC, CSU and California community college systems would face $1.4 billion in cuts. Any more cuts in education funding would result in California further harming its present and its future, Simitian says.
““It is a false economy to disinvest in education,” Simitian says. “There isn’t a state or a nation in the world that has grown its economy by disinvesting in public education.”
The debate over Brown’s plan will intensify in San Jose and other metropolitan areas because of Brown’s proposal to cut $1.7 billion from redevelopment agencies. While Brown said no programs that are currently bonded would be affected, Harry Mavrogenes, executive director of the San Jose Redevelopment Agency, called the idea a “shell game” that would hinder San Jose’s ability to attract businesses—as well as construct a new baseball stadium. “Financing is going to be very tough for any RDA faced with this death penalty in July,” Mavrogenes said.
Asked about the redevelopment issue, Simitian pauses to let out a dark chuckle and says: “I think we can expect it to be a lively conversation.”