SACRAMENTO -- The "big spending machine" hasn't quite given up hope.
Democratic legislators and liberal advocacy groups signaled Wednesday they are ready to fight to restore safety net programs devastated by years of cuts, a day after Gov. Jerry Brown emphasized a sober economic outlook in a revised budget that leaves little room for improving the lot of the poor.
Brown vowed to spend within the state's means, proclaiming he is the "backstop" to the "big spending machine" of interest groups and liberal legislators sure to bang on his door for help.
Brown scaled down hopes with a $96.4 billion budget that was $1.3 billion smaller than he'd proposed in January, saying that federal "sequestration" cuts, lower wages and a hike in Social Security taxes had quelled economic growth.
But advocates for the poor and disabled argue that a $1.1 billion rainy-day reserve and Brown's plan to repay certain state debts may not be appropriate during a time when many people are still suffering the effects of the Great Recession.
"Even amid constraints of a gloomier economic and fiscal outlook for the state for the next year, policy makers have choices," said Chris Hoene, executive director of the liberal California Budget Project. "Budgets ... reflect priorities."
Instead of repaying $500 million to special funds, for instance, funds "could be spent more effectively in other areas while we still have people in need," Hoene said.
He also argued that child care preschool funds could be restored at $130 million; funding for MediCal providers could be restored at $570 million; and cost-of-living adjustments could be reinstated for welfare recipients in the CalWorks program.
Vanessa Cajina, legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law & Poverty, said Brown has to re-examine his austerity agenda. "We must do more to reverse the upward trend in poverty and child poverty," she said.
More than a thousand health-care workers and advocates staged a Capitol rally Wednesday urging Brown to make sure the poor don't fall through the cracks as the state implements the Affordable Care Act. In his budget, Brown is seeking to immediately cut $300 million -- and another $1.3 billion by 2016 -- in payments to counties for indigent health-care coverage, saying that they will be getting that money from the federal government and "shouldn't be paid twice."
But advocates said the cuts are premature and would be done without knowing how much counties will get under Obamacare.
"California needs a safety-net that survives and thrives, and we should not prematurely reduce the resources already set aside to serve the three to four million remaining uninsured," said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said he would wait to hear from the Legislative Analyst's Office on Friday before he concedes that more can't be done to help the poor. He said he was most disappointed that the governor's projection of the rate of personal income growth was half -- 2 percent instead of 4 percent -- of what he had predicted in January. He said he will be looking for chances to improve dental coverage for the indigent, child care, mental health care and the court system.
"I never felt in any way that we were going to be able to make massive or large investments in any areas that we cut, always recognized the emphasis needed to be on fiscal balance and on prudence," Steinberg said. "But we had hoped, and I still have some hope, that we are able to make some modest improvements in some areas that suffered some of the greatest damage over the last four to five years."
Steinberg reiterated his opposition to Brown's "local control funding formula," which would provide about $2.5 billion in "concentration" grants to school districts in which more than 50 percent of students receive subsidized lunches, are foster children or are learning English as a second language. Steinberg and others want the money to be rolled into supplemental grants that go to all schools.
"I can't understand why it is we're not giving equal amounts of money to poor kids in poor schools in every district throughout the state," Steinberg said, noting that there are 405 schools with at least 50 percent of their students in poverty but who aren't a part of the "concentrated" school districts.
Even college students, who received the good news that colleges and universities will be receiving annual funding increases of 4 or 5 percent through 2017, voiced disappointment in Brown, who attended the UC Regents meeting at the Sacramento Convention Center across the street from the Capitol.
"It was disappointing not to see more funding to UC, given the projections," said Gordon Hoople, a mechanical engineering graduate student at UC Berkeley who serves on the university's Graduate Assembly.
In a discussion about graduation rates, Brown joked about his January proposal -- since dropped -- to impose caps on the number of course units students can take. "It was not received with the same enthusiasm with which it was proposed," he said.
Still, Brown signaled he still wants to find a way "to push" students along.