Los Angeles Politics

Buried fees, cuts and some gems in Newsom’s budget

If you’re a California boater, Gov. Gavin Newsom wants you to pay the state more and get less in return.

That’s one very small item tucked into the governor’s massive, revised $307-billion state budget proposal for the fiscal year starting July 1.

It’s the kind of thing that is easily overlooked. Not a word was said about it during Newsom’s two-hour budget presentation and news conference with reporters Friday.

And it begs the question: How many other little goodies affecting people are buried somewhere in the sprawling budget proposal?

We in the news media dutifully report the highlights of every annual state budget — its size, the governor’s priorities, any tax hikes — but most stuff never gets mentioned.

Another example:

Newsom deserves credit for this one. He wants to increase benefits for the aged, blind and disabled, who historically have gotten the shaft whenever a governor pulls out his budget-cutting knife.

These mostly impoverished people are among the weakest politically in the state Capitol. Powerful unions or business groups aren’t fighting for them.

But first about the slap at recreational boaters.

OK, I admit to being biased because I’ve been hooked on powerboats since age 14.

There are 2.6 million recreational boats in California and more than 4 million boaters, according to the state Division of Boating and Waterways.

“Recreational boating annually contributes several billion dollars to the state’s economy and [state] investments help to strengthen this economy through our many grant and loan programs,” the division website asserts.

But Newson wants to raise the boat registration fees while seemingly all but eliminating the grants for launching facilities.

No boater should boo-hoo about the increased registration fees, even if the governor proposes to quadruple them. They’ve been ridiculously low: only $20 for a two-year sticker. Newsom advocates jacking them up to $80. And they’d be “re-evaluated” — hiked — every four years afterward.

Required to be registered are motorboats and sailboats longer than 8 feet. No canoes, kayaks, rowboats or floating homes.

Fine. But normally if you pay a higher user fee, you expect to get something in return. Or at least the same level of service. Not a program whacking.

Newsom proposes cutting $6 million out of the grant program for building and improving boat launching ramps. The budget writeup reads like the program will be completely eliminated, but I couldn’t find anyone willing to directly answer that question.

“Launching facility grants will be funded as needed and as funds are available through the annual budget process,” I was told in an email by the Newsom administration. That sounds like old-fashioned, vote-buying pork politics.

Newsom also proposed cutting $5.3 million out of the effort to eradicate aquatic invasive species, such as floating plants that can clog waterways and burn up boat engines.

My email said the state will now be “treating only navigable waterways utilized by recreational boaters.” That might seem reassuring, except I suspect not every penny-pinching bureaucrat will agree on what’s a navigable waterway.

Praise is due, however, for Newsom’s generosity toward the aged, blind and disabled — 1.1 million mostly poor people on SSI/SSP (federal Supplemental Security Income and State Supplementary Payment).

The federal Social Security Administration handles this program and the state supplements it with cash benefits. Newsom is budgeting $3.6 billion for SSP in the next fiscal year. That’s not a huge state expenditure by Sacramento standards, but it’s vital for the recipients.

Historically, whenever there’s a state budget crunch, Sacramento has ripped off the aged, blind and disabled by reducing their state grants by an amount equal to the cost-of-living increase provided by the feds.

But Newsom isn’t doing that this time. He’s proposing to increase state payments.

At the start of this year, federal and state benefits rose by 8.7% and 10.3%, respectively. That increased total monthly grants to $1,134 for individuals and $1,928 for couples. Now the governor proposes bumping up state grants by an additional 8.6% in January at an annual cost of $292 million.

In his revised budget, Newsom also restored $40 million he earlier proposed to cut in foster youth services.

So, he’s being somewhat chivalrous — assuming all’s as it seems — given the fact that Newsom is projecting a $31.5-billion deficit in the budget year.

The governor’s fiscal luck has run out. For the first time, he’s facing some actual adversity — inflation, rising interest rates, bank closures — that is suppressing the economy and reducing state tax revenue.

The liberal Democrat cannot play his accustomed Santa Claus role in May. But neither is he — except for the likes of recreational boating — acting like Scrooge. He’s trying to slip through this with a minimum of pain with borrowing and spending delays.

The Legislature faces a June 15 deadline for passing a core budget.

In one very significant action to his credit, Newsom flatly rejected the notion of any major tax increase and signaled he’d veto such a bill.

State Senate leader Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) and Senate Budget Committee Chair Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) have been pushing for a hike in the corporation tax from 8.84% to 10.99% on net income exceeding $1.5 million.

Newsom noted that state government previously was basking in huge surpluses.

“How do you raise taxes when you’re enjoying a $177-billion operating surplus in the last 24 months and you just sent $18 billion in tax rebates, and look people in the eye?” the governor told reporters.

“I don’t think it’s the right thing to do at this moment.”

I’d say the same about not helping to build boat launching ramps — a dinghy-size expense.

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Joseph Hernandez

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