SACRAMENTO, Calif., June 12 (Reuters) - California lawmakers on Thursday worked furiously to put the finishing touches on a budget for the most populous U.S. state expected to top $156 billion and include increases in funding for education, transportation and paying down debts.
Facing a budget deadline of Sunday night, members of the state legislature worked behind the scenes to cement last-minute spending deals, putting off meetings to vote on budget items until late in the afternoon, said Will Shuck, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins.
“There are still conversations to be had,” Shuck said.
The improved economy and fiscal restraint tightly enforced by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown leaves California facing the next fiscal year in its best financial shape in years, but also led to disagreements between Brown and legislative leaders over how much to spend bolstering the state’s tattered safety net.
Among items likely to be included in the plan sent to the governor over the weekend are a measure providing free pre-kindergarten classes to low-income four-year-olds and an increase in spending on vocational education, both pushed by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.
“We can no longer afford a one-size-fits-all education system,” Steinberg, a Democrat from Sacramento, said after a budget committee passed his vocational education measure. “We can no longer afford to separate academics from how they apply to the real world.”
Steinberg, who is leaving the legislature at the end of this year, has made the pre-school program a cornerstone of his final term. Brown opposed additional spending for the idea at first, but Steinberg scaled it down considerably in hopes of gaining support from the governor, who has the power to veto individual budget items when considering the legislature’s plan.
Also under consideration was a plan to use funds from the state’s system of allowing companies to trade or sell their rights to emit carbon pollution to help pay for a high-speed rail project linking the northern and southern parts of the state.
A proposal to increase funding for the California State University System by about $100 million over what Brown had proposed failed in a late-night committee session on Wednesday, however, and will not be included in the final package.
“By not properly funding higher education, we are undermining our future,” said Republican assembly member Jeff Gorrell, whose district near Los Angeles includes a CSU campus. (Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Grant McCool)