SACRAMENTO -- With cash pouring into state coffers at a much higher rate than expected, Democrats in the Legislature are no doubt tempted to reopen their spending spigot and restore social programs that have taken devastating hits in recent years.

Apart from some targeted spending increases, however, lawmakers appear to be sticking to the disciplined approach that Gov. Jerry Brown has championed, even as he plans to announce in his revised budget Tuesday that tax revenues are $4.6 billion more than he predicted in January.

Indeed, most Democrats seem to be sounding more like their conservative Republican counterparts. Assembly Democrats are even circulating a document titled "Blueprint for a Responsible Budget" that highlights calls for "fiscal responsibility, a stronger middle class and less government red tape."

"Every one of us, those who've been here and were architects of the cuts, would love to see things restored," said Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, a member of the budget committee. "But the majority of us in the Democratic Assembly caucus feel we have to be cautious with this money."

It's all part of a concerted effort by Democrats to show voters they are loathe to repeat excesses of the past, when they parlayed momentary good economic times into spending binges, only to watch ensuing shortfalls force deep cutbacks in programs they'd bolstered.

"Clearly, the fact we're $4.6 billion ahead of forecast is a welcome change," said H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the California Department of Finance. "But we urge folks to exercise an abundance of caution."


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There are plenty of warning signs that binging would be a mistake for Democrats, who hold two-thirds majorities in both houses.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office says that this year's extra cash is probably a one-time surge, largely from tax receipts of wealthy individuals cashing out capital gains and dividends before Congress raised federal tax rates for those in the upper brackets in January.

In addition, a new LAO report says, virtually all the new money might have to be spent on schools and community colleges under Proposition 98 to pay schools back the money that was "deferred" in previous years.

Upwards of $40 billion has been cut over the last five years, with public schools, higher education and social safety net programs taking the brunt. Schools will reap the windfall from Proposition 30, the governor's November measure that raised sales taxes and income taxes on the wealthy.

Brown in January had proposed to spending $56.2 billion of a $97.7 billion spending plan on K-12 education and community colleges. The education spending is up from $47 billion just two years ago.

In line with the new fiscal-responsibility theme, Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, last week trumpeted a new proposal for a rainy-day fund. The idea is to sock away capital-gains revenues during good times and spend it during economic downturns. Perez hopes to put the proposal on the 2014 ballot, replacing another plan Democrats reluctantly negotiated as part of a budget deal in 2010. That plan has a spending cap that is unpopular with Democrats and their labor allies.

Democrats are also seeking to avoid a public backlash by moving too quickly on spending after voters approved Proposition 30.

But they do plan to restore of some programs they consider critical. Senate Democrats are seeking to restore MediCal adult dental care, which was eliminated four years ago, and beef up mental health services that have suffered deep cuts, as well as child care and job training for the poor. Assembly Democrats want to create new middle-class scholarships for college students, using money from November's Proposition 39, which closed a $1 billion annual loophole that benefitted out-of-state corporations.

Three tax bills -- one to raise taxes on soda, another on oil pumped from the ground and a third on tobacco -- all would need a two-thirds vote in both houses and the governor's signature. So they're highly unlikely to become law.

Still, they reflect the desire to find more money to fill those spending needs, said Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College.

"In public, legislative leaders are all saying the right things about fiscal discipline, but the question is what kind of pressure are they getting from members?" Pitney said. "You have to assume if Big Labor would like more government spending, and if it takes taxes to do that, that's what labor" gets.

Liberal welfare advocates say Democrats are right to proceed cautiously, but they must reinvest in programs like CalWorks, which lowered its top monthly stipend for a family of three from $723 to $638. The average stipend for a family of three is $400 a month.

"That's not pushing people out of poverty," said Chris Hoene, executive director of the left-leaning California Budget Project. "It's fiscally prudent to recognize that California has a large percentage of the population still struggling."

When recently asked if he was prepared to restore spending for such areas as California wildfire staffing, given the likelihood of another severe fire season, Gov. Brown told reporters he was sticking to his vow of austerity.

"Look, we made cuts because we didn't have the money," Brown said. "And I'm not going back to that era of make believe."

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Restoring programs?
Democrats who have made $40 billion in cuts over the last five years are seeking to restore some programs as the state's revenue picture improves. Here are three areas likely to see increases in funding:
  • Dental care for adults under the state's MediCal program. It was eliminated four years ago.
  • Mental health programs, which were hit with $700 million in cuts.
  • CalWorks, the state's welfare-to-work program. Maximum grants for a family of three were slashed to $638 a month.