What Lawmakers Learned From the Last Budget Crisis

May 21, 2020


By: Scott Shafer


As the state Legislature takes up Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget — the one with $19 billion less than before the coronavirus pandemic struck — some legislators say they're hoping to put to use lessons learned from the last state budget crisis in hopes of avoiding some of the same mistakes.

Mark Leno was elected to the state Senate in 2008, just as the economy was in free fall. What he remembers are the lines of people who came to the state Capitol to plead for their favorite programs before the Health and Human Services budget subcommittee.

"That's the committee where those cuts are made and hundreds of people make their way from throughout the state to line up at public comment to get a minute or two or three to tell us they're very sad. Real-life tales. You see the faces, you see the tears and you hear the cries for help," Leno said recently.



As Leno recalls, the state’s credit rating was dropping and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was resisting tax increases. "So it was as black as could be," Leno said.

Eventually, Schwarzenegger agreed to raise taxes and borrow money to help balance the budget. But the problem wasn't fixed and Leno, who went on to chair the state Senate Budget Committee, said the decisions they ultimately made to balance the budget then caused long-term damage.

"And, of course, the social safety net was just destroyed. It took us years and years and years to begin to put it back together," Leno said. "Those with the least suffer the most."

Around that time, a woman named Holly Mitchell traveled to Sacramento to lobby against a proposed billion-dollar cut to subsidized child care. At the time she led a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles. Today, Mitchell chairs the Senate Budget Committee and wields considerable influence around the Capitol. She said it was the last budget crisis that landed her where she is today.

"I sat in that hearing room and I listened to the kind of questions they asked and I saw them take that action. And I decided to run for the Assembly literally in that hearing room," state Sen. Mitchell said recently.


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