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What’s Next? California State Budget Advocacy Beyond the June Budget Deal

By Scott Graves, Budget Director, California Budget & Policy Center

The recent budget deal between Governor Newsom and legislative leaders — and the months-long debate that led up to it — reminds us that the state budget expresses California’s values and priorities. Budget decisions should improve the lives of the millions of Californians who are denied the chance to share in our state’s wealth.

Advocates played an important role in shaping the state spending plan during this challenging budget year. But much work remains to be done to ensure that the state budget truly reflects California’s values.

There’s no off-season for the state budget

Budget decisions happen throughout the year, not just from January to June. This means advocates have multiple opportunities to make their voices heard in the budget process. For example:

  • In August, state leaders will revisit the 2024-25 budget and make changes through additional trailer bills and at least one Budget Bill Jr
  • The administration is already developing the governor’s 2025-26 budget proposal for release by January 10.

Advocates should spend the next few weeks and months meeting with their contacts in the Legislature and the administration. The goal? Getting their priorities included in the August budget revision and the governor’s 2025-26 spending plan.

Building relationships with staffers and policymakers is critical

One of the most impactful ways for advocates to make their voices heard is to build relationships with policymakers and their staff in the Legislature and in the governor’s administration. These are the folks who “make things happen” — the insiders with the power to lift up or bury advocates’ “budget ask” or innovative policy ideas.

To influence policy agendas and decisions, advocates need to build familiarity and trust with the key players in the budget process. This is hard work that needs to be sustained over time, especially given staff turnover, which constantly brings new personalities into the mix. Late summer through the fall is a great time to start forging new relationships or to shore up existing ones.

A combined budget + bill strategy can help advocates’ ideas gain traction

Policymaking happens both through the state budget process and the policy bill (or legislative) process. Effective advocacy requires knowing not only how these processes work, but also how they’re related and when they should be combined using a budget and bill strategy.

Proposals with a small impact on the state budget (as determined by the governor) can move through the policy bill process. However, a policy bill runs the risk of a veto if the governor objects to the cost and argues the idea should have been considered alongside other funding priorities through the budget process. In contrast, policy proposals with a significant fiscal impact (as determined by the governor) generally need to move through the budget process, with funding included in the state budget.

However, proposals that need an upfront budget allocation can benefit from initially moving through the policy bill process, with the goal of eventually shifting the idea to the “budget track.” Starting with a policy bill has many advantages, including providing a “vehicle” (a bill) around which communities can organize, raising the profile of a proposal, building broad support, and identifying helpful amendments as well as potential costs.

Persistence is key to successful budget advocacy

Advocating for equitable budget priorities and meaningful revenue solutions to build the state we want to live in typically requires playing the long game. This is especially true in tough budget years  — like this one — when cuts are on the table and visionary ideas move to the back burner until the fiscal and political conditions are right.

But persistent advocacy can produce significant budget wins. One example of the long game is the successful expansion of Medi-Cal coverage to low-income undocumented Californians, which took a decade-long campaign and happened in stages across four state budgets.

The Budget Center is advocates’ go-to resource

As advocates develop their post-June budget strategy, the California Budget & Policy Center is here to help. We provide technical assistance on a range of budget and policy issues, and our website includes numerous resources, like our state budget process guide. Our goal is to help advocates understand the broad context as well as the details in order to both inform and support advocacy strategies that aim to build a just and equitable California.

Blog contributor: Scott Graves, Budget Director, California Budget & Policy Center