On Monday of this week, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a series of budget bills worth more than $100 billion, giving the most detailed glimpse yet into how the state’s huge budget surplus will be distributed over the coming months, and how California’s experiment with social democracy is gaining pace in 2021 in the run-up to the September recall election. It’s a stark contrast to the extreme lurch rightward of Texas, the country’s other behemoth state, in the recent legislative session. The difference sets the stage for national fights, in coming election cycles, between states drawn to the Texas model and those seeking to recalibrate their fiscal and political priorities in the more inclusive way that California is now doing.
Included among the California budget details: stimulus checks of either $600 to Californians with gross income of under $75,000 per year or $1,200 for residents excluded from federal stimulus programs because of their immigration status, more than $5 billion to cover the back rent of low-income renters who were pushed into arrears by the pandemic, and $2 billion to help cover water and utility bills for these renters.
On the education front, the budget ushers in extraordinary changes. Front and center is the creation of an entirely new year of school, named “transitional kindergarten,” for all 4-year-olds—rather than just the 100,000 currently eligible—and extended school days and years for all low-income children. The transitional kindergarten, which will be implemented by 2025, is an attempt to push educational equity in a state that has long been plagued by huge extremes of opportunity and access to educational facilities. In the meantime, however, other significant changes will kick in, including the provision of two free school meals to all public school students. The state will also invest billions of dollars in expanding after-school and summer school programs.
For a state that, since the passage of the tax-limiting Prop 13 in 1978, has been plagued by both underspending on education as a whole, and, more particularly, huge shortfalls in education dollars and resources channeled to lower-income students and communities, this is a huge shift. Once the budget is implemented, California will no longer be among the worst states in the country for per-pupil spending. Instead, as it was during the golden days of California’s post–World War II expansion, it will once more be a national leader in innovative education reforms.
And the shift in priorities isn’t limited to the K-12 arena. Building on proposals that legislators began pushing earlier this year, the budget measures also remove the age limit for Cal Grants, meaning that well over 100,000 mature students in the state’s sprawling community college system will now be eligible for increased financial assistance.
The reforms continue in other arena as well. On the mental health front, the Children and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative will receive, as was widely publicized back in May, a one-time infusion of $4 billion, to be spent over the next five years, to tackle the cascading mental health crises experienced by young people during the pandemic.
Less high-profile but equally significant, the budget allocates $50 million a year to public defenders’ offices around the state to facilitate the realization of resentencing reforms that the legislature has already approved—and to hire social workers who can help families of prisoners seeking to have their original sentences changed.
Over the next couple of months, according to criminal justice reformers I have spoken with in Sacramento, Newsom’s administration will continue to negotiate with legislators about repealing a number of fees—court costs and other expenses—that have, over the decades, proven particularly devastating to poorer people enmeshed in the criminal justice system. These fees, of only marginal import to wealthier defendants, can prove impossible for poorer people to ever get out from under. (As an example of how devastating they can be, in Florida a couple years back, GOP legislators massively reduced the impact of an amendment to re-enfranchise felons by passing a law requiring all such fees to have been fully paid off before a person could re-register to vote.)
For California, which once had nearly 170,000 prisoners and tens of thousands more in county jails, until then-Governor Brown, under pressure from federal courts, began scaling back the incarceration system a decade ago, these are big changes.
Too often in the recent past, prisoners have been released onto the streets, the system has washed its hands of them, and they have floundered—contributing to the state’s skyrocketing homelessness numbers. Now, if the legislature and the administration come to an agreement, serious resources could soon be channeled toward assisting ex-prisoners, helping them navigate fees owed, and more generally offering assistance in reintegrating on the outside.
These are fascinating times in California. The huge influx of dollars into the state’s general fund—coming at a time when Governor Newsom is desperate to make his mark on the state in the run-up to the recall vote—is leading to a blossoming of creative policies and programs. Their impact will likely be felt for decades to come.