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San Mateo County lawmakers digest bleak budget forecast

Local lawmakers awed at the depth of the severe spending cuts proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in the revised California budget racked by COVID-19, while echoing calls for federal support to help the state weather the economic storm.

Assemblymen Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, and Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, along with state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, acknowledged the painful decisions ahead of the July budget deadline.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Mullin, regarding the immediate reversal of fortune in a state which recently expected a $6 billion surplus. Newsom’s most revised budget proposed a $54 billion deficit.

Berman shared a similarly bleak perspective.

“We are facing a situation that none of us could have imagined in our worst dreams just three months ago,” he said.

Meanwhile, Hill framed the hard choices ahead for lawmakers.

“Gov. Newsom provided a carefully drawn proposal for our state to pull through the 2020-21 fiscal year, and now it’s up to lawmakers to refine that plan,” he said in an email. “We all know we have difficult decisions to make.”

To establish a balanced budget for the upcoming fiscal year, Newsom proposed Thursday, May 14, cutting $6.1 billion from the plan first unveiled in January. While some of the cuts were limited by a $16 billion rainy-day fund, the $203 billion budget proposal included significant reductions.

Among the notable belt-tightening measures is cutting spending on K-12 education by nearly $7 billion compared to the 2019-20 budget year.

For his part, Hill said he would work hard to preserve funding for the public school system.

“Education took devastating hits during the Great Recession. I want to keep education as whole as we possibly can,” he said in a prepared statement.

Berman said he hoped the cuts would be spared from wildfire protection efforts as well as the public health system, the value of which is amplified amid a global pandemic.

He balanced that perspective by noting its difficult to spare programs during a sudden, sweeping budget overhaul.

“If you are cutting $54 billion, I don’t know how you avoid any areas,” he said.

Mullin, meanwhile, said he wanted to protect the state’s most vulnerable populations, while committing to advocate for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

He said such programs were still struggling to regain the position they held prior to the Great Recession, and the pandemic threatens to further weaken available financing.

“My focus will be how do we protect those most vulnerable and those on the margins from those cuts,” said Mullin. “And that’s where it gets very difficult.”

He suggested the path to recovery could be eased by federal lawmakers backing the relief bill proposed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, who unveiled a more than $3 trillion coronavirus aid package with $1 trillion for states and cities.

Noting that a hearty California economy is key to the nation’s success, Mullin said he believed federal officials are incented to assure the state and others receive the relief necessary to recover swiftly.

“California helps drive the national budget and it is to President Trump’s peril that he not support what is happening in California,” said Mullin, alluding to signals from Republican leaders and the White House that they would staunchly oppose the spending package.

Berman also called for assistance.

“A lot of this can be mitigated if we get more federal help,” said Berman, sharing measured optimism that political posturing would not interfere with the availability of federal support.

And while skeptical the entirety of the stimulus package would be approved, Berman and Mullin shared some confidence that states could count on further support from the federal government.

“This pandemic isn’t partisan,” said Berman.

Looking ahead, Mullin said he believed some silver linings could be identified in the opportunity for California to position itself for recovery. He said some investment could be necessary, nodding to his environmental bond proposal as a means of potentially generating jobs and combating climate change.

More broadly, he expressed confidence California would survive this unprecedented and unexpected challenge.

“I don’t think we can shrink from this challenge,” he said. “We have to be aggressive when it comes time to really work on economic recovery.”

Hill agreed too.

“Even as we cope with the turmoil caused by COVID-19, we cannot lose sight of the steps we must take to ensure California has a strong, smart and safe future,” he said.