Just hours ahead of a constitutional deadline, the California Legislature approved a $108 billion spending plan Sunday for the 2014-15 fiscal year that sends billions more to schools, pays down debt, props up the embattled High-Speed Rail project and provides funds for a Golden Gate Bridge suicide net.
The budget now heads to Gov. Jerry Brown, who on Friday called the spending plan a "solid and sustainable budget."
Democratic lawmakers successfully lobbied for more generous spending than Brown had proposed in order to restore and expand programs cut during the recession.
"Does this budget represent a world of difference than what we faced three years ago?" said state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. "It does. It's night versus day."
The budget includes:
-- $264 million for expanding early education programs, adding 11,500 preschool slots for low-income families by June 2015 and 31,500 additional slots in the coming years. Funding would also go toward improving transitional kindergarten and increasing child care reimbursement rates.
-- $250 million for career technical programs at high schools.
-- $300 million over the next two years to allow in-home caregivers to receive overtime.
-- A yet-to-be-known amount to City College of San Francisco for the next three years to keep funding near the same level as 2012-13, before enrollment dropped because of fears that the school would lose its accreditation.
-- $250 million for the High-Speed Rail project, along with 25 percent of future cap-and-trade funds. Under cap and trade, California collects nearly $1 billion per year by auctioning "carbon credits" that essentially permit businesses to exceed the cap on carbon dioxide emissions.
Republicans lambasted the proposal to spend cap-and-trade revenue on the controversial project.
Lawmakers also agreed to spend $200 million using cap-and-trade revenue on low-carbon transportation projects and $130 million on affordable housing projects near mass transit.
-- $7 million to help fund suicide nets on the Golden Gate Bridge, a $66 million project. "We're delighted," said Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, of the attempt to reduce suicides from the iconic bridge. "We are right up to the crucial shovel-ready point, so the squabble wasn't about the merits of the net -- that we've put behind us. It's who would come up with the funding."
-- $9 million to expand access to welfare programs to people convicted of drug felonies. Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said opening the welfare program to drug felons will give people coming out of prison a chance to get back on their feet and reverses an inequity in the program.
Equity for drug felons
Drug felons had been barred for life from receiving benefits such as food stamps, called CalFresh in California. Lawmakers changed the law, and the budget sent to Brown would fund the expansion.
"It will put them on a similar level of eligibility as rapists, murderers, armed bank robbers -- all of them are eligible," Leno said. "Only drug felons are not."
The Legislature also approved a measure that would allow the California Coastal Commission to impose civil penalties on people who intentionally block public access to state beaches. Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, attempted to pass a similar bill last year that failed, but the proposal resurfaced in a budget trailer bill.
It's unclear how the additional authority could affect the fight over access to Martins Beach near Half Moon Bay, where billionaire property owner Vinod Khosla has blocked the only road to the scenic coastal haven.
The budget did not include nearly as much spending as Democratic lawmakers had fought for, with the plan's hallmark preschool proposal scaled back and no additional money to increase reimbursement that doctors receive for treating Medi-Cal patients.
Atkins said she regretted not being able to find funding to increase the number of doctors who see low-income patients.
"I agree with the governor in that we need to make sure we have the resources to do this," she said. "We are working as of tomorrow to figure out how soon we can do this."
While much of the deal was discussed in the months leading up to the approval, several items appeared to surface out of nowhere, including a controversial policy that would restrict how much school districts can keep in budget reserves under certain circumstances.
Point of contention
Lawmakers expressed concern that the policy was forced into the budget by the governor without a public hearing, but Democrats approved it. Some school groups and Republicans lambasted the proposal, while accusing the California Teachers Association of supporting it as a means of putting more money on the negotiating table for raises.
"All things considered, this is not a bad budget framework," said Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar (Los Angeles County). But he also had criticism: "We'd like to have a bipartisan budget that we can all feel good about, but this was a back-room deal negotiated by Democrats for Democrats."
Melody Gutierrez is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: mgutierrezsfchronicle.com Twitter: @MelodyGutierrez
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