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Legislative Leaders Say State Budget Deal Is Near

SACRAMENTO (AP) — Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature's Democratic leaders moved close to a state budget deal Monday that is expected to revamp education funding and begin restoring some of the social services cut during the recession.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg emerged from a meeting with the governor and Assembly Speaker John Perez at the Capitol and said no significant sticking points remain just days ahead of the budget's legislative deadline.

"It's almost there, but not yet," he said.

He said he expected no problem hitting the Saturday deadline for the Legislature to send its budget for the coming fiscal year to the governor's office.

The Legislature's budget conference committee voted Monday night on some of the key aspects of the compromise, including the governor's plan to revise the education funding formula. Brown wants schools with high proportions of low-income students, English learners and foster children to receive more money as a way to help boost achievement in lower-performing schools.

One of the main points of contention had been which revenue estimates to adopt — the one the Democratic governor used in proposing his $96.4 billion revised budget in May or the one from the independent Legislative Analyst's Office, which was $3.2 billion higher.

Brown has resisted using the higher revenue projection, saying it relied too much on volatile capital gains.

An improving economy and the sales and income tax increases approved by voters last fall have brightened the state's budget picture considerably. That has emboldened Democratic lawmakers, who control both houses of the Legislature, to call for higher spending than Brown wanted.

Democrats sought to restore a variety of services that had been cut in recent years.

Those in the Assembly promoted a spending plan that increased welfare assistance, expanded child care for the poor and gave more college aid to middle-class families.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, sought to restore dental care for the neediest, expand access to mental health and autism treatments, and foster job training through career technical education in high schools.

Both houses of the Legislature also wanted to restore about $100 million in court funding, ultimately settling on $63 million in the compromise.

The legislative leaders also settled on Brown's more conservative revenue projection, said Sen. Mark Leno, who is co-chairman of the Joint Legislative Budget Conference Committee. He said Democrats and the governor would revisit some of the lawmakers' spending priorities next year, when he hoped higher tax revenue would materialize.

"It doesn't close the door on anything," Leno said of the lower revenue estimates as he opened the committee's hearing Monday.

Sen. Bill Emmerson of Redlands, the ranking Republican on the budget committee, said after the hearing that the compromise plan was better than either proposal advanced by the Senate or Assembly.

At the governor's insistence, he said, "it held the line on spending." But Emmerson said he was disappointed it does not do more to pay down what Brown has referred to as California's "wall of debt."

Lawmakers need only a simple majority vote to pass a budget. With Democrats controlling both houses, they can do that without Republican support.

Brown's K-12 funding formula had been a point of contention because officials in school districts that do not have high levels of low-income students or English learners also wanted a slice of the extra revenue.

The compromise will provide a higher base grant to every school district at the same time it provides more money to schools with struggling students.

Democratic Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield of Woodland Hills, who sits on the budget conference committee, said the compromise achieves the governor's goal of providing more money to districts with the greatest "but do so in a way that no school or district is going to get left behind."

The governor also wants to give school districts more control of how to spend state aid.

He issued a statement Monday night after the committee had concluded its work.

"It looks like California will get another balanced budget and, very importantly, educational funding that recognizes the different needs of California's students," he said.

One of the major unresolved issues is how to expand the state's Medicaid program, known as Medi-Cal, to some 1.4 million Californians. The state has opted to expand the program under President Barack Obama's health care reforms.

The federal government will pay the entire amount of the expanded coverage from 2014 to 2016, gradually reducing that to a 90 percent share.

The governor proposed to cut local government support for Medi-Cal by $300 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year and up to $1.3 billion in 2015-16. Brown argued the state would be paying twice if it did not reduce those payments — for providing coverage under the Medicaid expansion that will be funded by the federal government while maintaining the same level of county support for indigent health care services.

County officials and health care advocates argued against the cuts because California will still have 3 million to 4 million uninsured residents requiring care after the Medicaid expansion.

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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