Skip to content

key takeaway

CalWORKs is a crucial safety net program supporting low-income families. However, proposed budget cuts prioritize short-term employment over long-term stability, potentially undermining the program’s effectiveness and contradicting the governor’s stated goals.

The California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs) program plays a crucial role in supporting children and families with low incomes. CalWORKs helps families with children struggling to meet their basic needs by providing them with modest monthly cash grants and important supportive services. Recent state reforms to CalWORKs have been designed to improve the program’s capacity to support parents in identifying goals, addressing barriers, and securing sustainable economic stability and family well-being.

However, the recent governor’s budget proposal shifts the program’s focus, aligning it more closely with the problematic roots of the federal program. The proposed cuts would narrow the program’s focus to basic cash aid by diminishing vital support services and case management. These cuts prioritize rapidly moving parents into paid employment over addressing the broader, longer-term barriers to work and the resources necessary for families to flourish. This contradicts and would likely undermine the governor’s commitment to pursue a new federal opportunity designed to strengthen the program by focusing on family stability and well-being.

What is the history of the CalWORKs program?

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), as CalWORKs is known federally, was enacted in 1996 as part of President Clinton’s welfare reform, aiming to grant states more autonomy in addressing poverty and assisting families. However, the program fell short of fulfilling its original intent due to the prevailing narrative that not all families were worthy of assistance. This included racist, sexist, and historical biases, such as the “welfare queen” stereotype popularized by figures like then California Governor Ronald Reagan. This narrative influenced the 1990s reform that ultimately cut assistance and imposed punitive “welfare to work” training and employment requirements on TANF participants. Since its inception, the federal program has focused on quickly pushing parents into paid employment over addressing longer-term barriers to work and resources needed to lead thriving lives.

In 1997, California mirrored these federal reforms with the establishment of the CalWORKs program, signed into law by Governor Pete Wilson. Echoing sentiments at the federal level, Wilson framed the program as a means to prompt welfare recipients to “escape from dependency” on assistance while stressing the strict time limits and work requirements. At the core of this is the idea of “self-responsibility” that minimizes the systemic barriers that affect program participants, including racist and sexist discrimination in workplaces and educational settings, as well as the generational trauma stemming from living in poverty.

What does the future of TANF look like?

On June 3, 2023, President Biden signed the Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA) into law. This piece of legislation was significant to safety net policy because it was the first time Congress had made significant programmatic changes to the TANF program in nearly two decades and provided a window of opportunity to fundamentally change the short-sighted work-first approach to the TANF program. Among various provisions, the FRA includes a pilot program that would fund up to five states to test alternative performance indicators instead of the work participation rate (WPR). States selected to participate in the pilot program would be evaluated based on:

  • The percentage of work-eligible participants employed after exiting the program;
  • The level of earnings of these participants; and
  • Other indicators of family stability and well-being.

The goal of the pilot program is to move away from evaluating program success based on work participation, which has been the single target metric since the program’s inception. The WPR is a process measure that only accounts for whether the parent is able to document their required hours of participation in a narrow set of approved activities. There is little evidence to suggest that work participation as a metric is indicative of long-term employment and self-sufficiency. Rather, research suggests that stringent work requirements push people into jobs similar to the ones they lost, leading up to their TANF participation. This creates an ineffective cycle of moving people between low-wage unstable employment and TANF benefits. There is no clear link between work requirements and reductions in poverty.

Are California policymakers prioritizing a family-first approach to CalWORKs?

In his January 10th proposed budget, Governor Newsom indicated, in reference to the federal pilot program, that “California plans to pursue this opportunity to reform the accountability tools in the CalWORKs program to improve outcomes for families.” While California has made significant progress toward tracking CalWORKs outcomes in creative ways with the introduction of the CalWORKs Outcomes and Accountability Review (Cal-OAR) framework and adopted an evidence-based behavioral approach to guide families in setting goals (CalWORKs 2.0), it has yet to make significant programmatic changes to disrupt the reliance on work participation as a metric for success.

Rather than expanding on this framework, the governor proposed significant cuts to the CalWORKs program, impacting administrative funding as well as reducing intensive case management services and effectively eliminating two programs that make a concerted effort to address barriers to employment and provide support to families with the most complex needs. The two impacted programs are:

How does the governor’s proposal to cut select CalWORKs programs align with the future of TANF?

The irony of the governor’s proposed cuts to CalWORKs is that they impact programs that would directly align with the intent of the new federal pilot program (described above). The ESE program has been successful in helping participants obtain work experience and development in their journey to finding a permanent job. This could lead to better outcomes in terms of employment and earnings after exiting the program, which is directly linked to the pilot objectives.

The FS program provides families with intensive case management and timely access to crisis management services, which directly aligns with the family stability and well-being goals of the pilot program. These services include a range of housing, mental health, substance abuse, and other supports critical to prevent family instabilities such as homelessness and child welfare system involvement. Additionally, the FS program is essential to remove barriers to work that may prevent participants from obtaining and maintaining employment. Together, these services better support families in exiting the program with sustainable economic security.

The governor’s budget proposal to effectively eliminate these two components of the CalWORKs program is contradictory to his goal of pursuing the federal pilot program. Taking away essential family support is reminiscent of the 1990s discourse that policymakers should move beyond. Rather than taking a step backward, California should continue to lead the way in creating a more family-centered CalWORKs program by leaning into the elimination of barriers to employment so that families can feel fully supported and be able to thrive. This will help ensure the state not only has a successful pilot application, but can demonstrate to the nation progress in the real family outcomes and pathways out of poverty that the pilot will assess. 

Stay in the know.

Join our email list!

key takeaway

Despite California’s commitment to funding education through Proposition 98, increased child poverty and budget shortfalls pose substantial challenges.

All California students deserve the opportunity to learn and achieve their goals. Recognizing the critical role schools play in supporting student success, California voters adopted Proposition 98 (Prop. 98), which established an annual minimum funding guarantee for public K-12 schools and community colleges. 

When students and their families struggle to make ends meet, their educational success is put at risk. The poverty rate for children in California more than doubled from 2021 to 2022, suggesting that more support is needed to help families meet their basic needs. 

Helping Californians meet those needs while adequately funding K-14 education is challenging when the state experiences a budget shortfall that results from revenues falling far short of projections — as is the case this year. Understanding Prop. 98 and its interaction with the state budget is essential to assess policymakers’ options for addressing the challenges this year’s state budget presents.

What is Proposition 98?

Prop. 98 is a constitutional amendment adopted by California voters in 1988 that establishes an annual minimum funding level for K-14 education each fiscal year — the Prop. 98 guarantee. Prop. 98 funding comes from a combination of state General Fund revenue and local property taxes. Prop. 98 spending supports K-12 schools (including transitional kindergarten), community colleges, county offices of education, the state preschool program, and state agencies that provide direct K-14 instructional programs. While Prop. 98 establishes a required minimum funding level for programs falling under the guarantee as a whole, it does not protect individual programs from reduction or elimination.

How is the Prop. 98 minimum funding guarantee calculated?

Each year’s Prop. 98 guarantee is calculated based on a percentage of state General Fund revenues or the prior year guarantee adjusted for K-12 attendance and an inflation measure.1The inflation measure is either the percentage change in state per capita personal income for the preceding year or the annual change in per capita state General Fund revenues plus 0.5 percent. Since some of this information is not available until after the end of the state’s fiscal year, the Legislature funds Prop. 98 at the time of the annual Budget Act based on estimates of the Prop. 98 minimum funding level. 

Once the final Prop. 98 guarantee is determined, the process of reconciling the actual and estimated guarantee is known as “settle up.” If the final Prop. 98 guarantee turns out to be higher than initially estimated, the Legislature must provide additional funding to make up the difference. On the other hand, if the Prop. 98 spending requirement is below the funding level assumed in a budget act, the Legislature has the option to amend the Budget Act to reduce funding to the lower revised minimum Prop. 98 guarantee.2The Legislature also can suspend Prop. 98 for a single year by a two-thirds vote of each house.

To the extent that the Legislature provides funding above the Prop. 98 minimum guarantee, it can increase the following year’s Prop. 98 minimum funding level and state spending required to fulfill the Prop. 98 obligation in future years. In other words, deciding to provide funding above the Prop. 98 minimum guarantee for one budget year can increase the minimum funding level for the subsequent year’s budget and beyond.

What is the Prop. 98 reserve?

California voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2014 that established the Public School System Stabilization Account (the PSSSA) – the Prop. 98 reserve. Constitutional formulas require the state to make deposits into, and withdrawals from, the Prop. 98 reserve. When the state faces a budget problem, discretionary withdrawals from the Prop. 98 reserve may also be made if the governor declares a budget emergency and the Legislature passes a bill to withdraw funds, which can only be used to support K-14 education.

Why is California facing a budget shortfall? And how large is it?

California faces a budget shortfall, also known as a “budget problem,” of tens of billions of dollars. The shortfall is based on estimates of revenues and spending across three fiscal years: 2022-23, 2023-24, and 2024-25 (the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2024). This three-year period is known as the “budget window.” The main reason for the budget problem is that state revenue collections have fallen short of projections. A large portion of the problem is related to state revenues for the 2022 tax year, which are estimated to be about $25 billion lower than what policymakers expected when they adopted the budget for the current fiscal year last summer.

The extent of the 2022 revenue shortfall only became clear in late 2023 due to the extension of tax filing deadlines for 2022 taxes to November 2023. Because of this delay, state leaders had to finalize the 2023-24 budget last June with much less complete revenue information than usual, and they enacted a budget assuming significantly more revenue for the 2022 tax year than actually materialized.

How does California’s budget problem affect the Prop. 98 guarantee?

Revenue collections falling short of projections not only creates a budget problem for the state, it also means the Prop. 98 minimum funding guarantee for K-14 education is significantly lower than the level assumed in last year’s enacted budget. Based on revenue estimates in the governor’s January 2024 budget proposal, the Prop. 98 minimum funding guarantee dropped by $14.3 billion across the three-year budget window (2022-23 to 2024-25) compared to assumptions made last June.3The amount of state funding required to fulfill the Prop. 98 guarantee across the three-year budget window dropped by $15.2 billion below the Prop. 98 funding level assumed last June. The difference between the state’s funding requirement and the $14.3 billion total decline in the Prop. 98 guarantee reflects estimates in the governor’s January 2024 budget proposal that include a $900 million increase in local property tax revenue, which offsets the $15.2 billion reduction in the state’s portion of the Prop. 98 funding obligation.

Reconciling Prop. 98 spending with revised estimates of the Prop. 98 guarantee can be challenging when the minimum funding guarantee falls — and it is especially difficult if the revised guarantee falls significantly. The current challenge of managing such a large decline in the Prop. 98 minimum funding guarantee is further complicated because the majority of the drop — $9.1 billion — is attributed to the 2022-23 fiscal year, which ended on June 30, 2023. 

The Legislature can address the challenge by amending last year’s Budget Act to reduce Prop. 98 funding to the lower revised minimum Prop. 98 guarantee. But, because the state has already allocated 2022-23 dollars to K-14 education, reducing K-14 education funding would be logistically difficult and would significantly impact K-12 schools’ and community colleges’ budgets. On the other hand, maintaining 2022-23 Prop. 98 spending above the minimum funding requirement could boost the state’s funding obligation to meet the Prop. 98 guarantee in 2023-24 and 2024-25.

How does the governor propose to address the budget problem and protect students and educators?

To help address the state budget shortfall, the governor’s January budget proposal assumes a reduction in state funding to the lower revised estimates of the Prop. 98 guarantee over the three-year budget window (2022-23 to 2024-25). To reduce Prop. 98 spending, the governor proposes a combination of spending reductions and discretionary withdrawals from the Prop. 98 reserve. 

A significant part of the governor’s plan is an $8 billion reduction in Prop. 98 spending attributable to 2022-23, which would help reduce state General Fund spending to the lower revised Prop. 98 minimum funding level. However, the governor’s proposal would not take away the $8 billion from K-12 schools and community colleges — dollars they received for 2022-23 that have largely been spent. Instead, the governor proposes a complex accounting maneuver that would shift the $8 billion in K-14 education costs — on paper — from 2022-23 to later fiscal years.

First Look: Understanding the governor's 2024-25 state budget proposal

Learn about the key pieces of the 2024-25 California budget proposal, and explore how the governor prioritized spending and determined cuts amid a sizable projected state budget shortfall.

Specifically, $8 billion in 2022-23 costs would be spread across five state budgets from 2025-26 to 2029-30 ($1.6 billion per year). Moreover, these delayed expenses would be paid for using non-Prop. 98 funds. In other words, $8 billion in General Fund dollars from the non-Prop. 98 side of the state budget — funds that could otherwise support health, safety net, housing, and other critical services — would be spent on K-14 education but would not count as Prop. 98 spending nor boost the Prop. 98 minimum funding guarantee (the implications of this are discussed below).

In addition, to help pay for existing K-14 education program costs in 2023-24 and 2024-25, the governor proposes making $5.7 billion in discretionary withdrawals from the Prop. 98 reserve. These one-time reserve funds would help support K-14 education in 2023-24 and 2024-25 at the same time that the state reduces General Fund spending required to meet the Prop. 98 minimum funding obligation.

How could the governor’s proposal affect non-Prop. 98 spending?

The governor’s proposal would use non-Prop. 98 resources to make a total of $8 billion in payments to K-14 education starting in 2025-26, but the proposal fails to propose additional revenue or other non-spending cuts to make these payments. Because no additional alternatives are part of the plan, the proposal would create pressure to reduce spending for state budget priorities outside of K-14 education starting in 2025-26.

Shifting Prop. 98 costs to the non-Prop 98 side of the budget creates significant risks to state spending that supports California’s children and families. By creating a future obligation for K-14 education without additional resources to pay for it, the governor’s plan could force reductions in spending for programs such as child care, student aid, and social safety net services that many Californians depend on for support to make ends meet.

How can state leaders address the decline in the Prop. 98 guarantee?

Policymakers have options to address the large decline in the Prop. 98 minimum funding guarantee that include the following:

Bottom line: Policymakers can address the decline in the Prop. 98 guarantee without creating pressure to reduce spending for priorities outside of K-14 education. The decline in the state’s Prop. 98 minimum funding guarantee due to state revenues falling short of expectations creates significant challenges for state leaders this year. However, policymakers have options for addressing these challenges, including raising revenues from wealthy corporations and high-income individuals who have ample resources to contribute.

Policymakers can also choose to withdraw more from the state’s Prop. 98 reserve to support K-14 education spending. Relying on Prop. 98 reserve funds alone may not be sufficient to cover all K-14 education expenses for which the state has made commitments. However, policymakers should look to raising revenue and other options to address the decline in the Prop. 98 guarantee that do not harm K-12 schools and community colleges or create pressure to reduce spending for state budget priorities outside of K-14 education.

  • 1
    The inflation measure is either the percentage change in state per capita personal income for the preceding year or the annual change in per capita state General Fund revenues plus 0.5 percent.
  • 2
    The Legislature also can suspend Prop. 98 for a single year by a two-thirds vote of each house.
  • 3
    The amount of state funding required to fulfill the Prop. 98 guarantee across the three-year budget window dropped by $15.2 billion below the Prop. 98 funding level assumed last June. The difference between the state’s funding requirement and the $14.3 billion total decline in the Prop. 98 guarantee reflects estimates in the governor’s January 2024 budget proposal that include a $900 million increase in local property tax revenue, which offsets the $15.2 billion reduction in the state’s portion of the Prop. 98 funding obligation.

Stay in the know.

Join our email list!

key takeaway

California’s budget shortfall presents significant challenges for the state’s economy, public services, and residents. Addressing the shortfall requires a balanced approach that includes revenue-raising measures and targeted spending cuts to ensure continued support for critical programs and vulnerable populations.

Building a just and equitable California for every person no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, age, or zip code requires investments to create health, housing, economic, and educational opportunities. The foundation for these investments is the state budget, through which policymakers can commit the funding needed to build a California where everyone can be healthy and thrive. But sustaining and expanding the state’s investments in individuals and communities becomes more challenging when revenues fall short of projections and lead to a state budget shortfall — as is the case this year.

This Q&A:

  • looks at the size of the state budget shortfall and why it emerged,
  • notes that state revenues could come in higher or lower than expected,
  • outlines state leaders’ options for addressing the budget gap, including raising revenues and using reserves, and
  • describes how advocates can work, even in a tough budget year, to advance their priorities and lay the groundwork for building a more equitable California.

What is the size of the budget shortfall?

California faces a budget shortfall — also known as a “budget problem,” “deficit,” or “gap” — of tens of billions of dollars. The shortfall is based on estimates of revenues and spending across three fiscal years: 2022-23 (the prior year), 2023-24 (the current year), and 2024-25 (the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2024). This three-year period is known as the “budget window.”

Policymakers must close the deficit by June 2024 as part of the 2024-25 budget process by taking actions that apply to all three fiscal years. (Potential budget actions are described in later sections of this Q&A.)

There is no single, agreed-upon estimate of the current size of the budget shortfall. Estimates involve making assumptions about economic conditions, revenue collections, and the needs of California communities in the future. The governor’s administration and the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) independently produce estimates of revenue collections and the state’s overall fiscal condition for the three-year budget window, and their assumptions are often different.

For the current budget window (July 2022 through June 2025):

  • Governor Newsom’s proposed budget, released on January 10, estimates a shortfall of $38 billion.
  • However, the actions the governor proposes to take to close the deficit add up to $58 billion, according to the LAO. This means the governor has actually identified a $58 billion budget problem, based on the LAO’s analysis, even though his “headline” number — $38 billion — is much smaller. The reason why there are two different numbers is that the governor and the LAO disagree about how to categorize some spending actions in the governor’s proposed budget.
  • The LAO’s own estimate of the budget shortfall is $68 billion.

In short, the governor solves for a smaller budget shortfall ($58 billion) than the LAO projects ($68 billion). This difference is largely due to the governor’s more optimistic state revenue forecast. The governor currently assumes that revenues will be about $15 billion higher over the three-year budget window compared to the LAO’s projections.

Estimates of the budget shortfall will be updated in May as more information becomes available. The key takeaway is that the state has a sizable budget problem to address in this year’s budget process.

Why is California facing a budget problem this year?

The main reason for the budget problem is that state revenue collections have been coming in much lower than previously projected, and forecasts for future revenues have also been adjusted downward as a result. This occurs after several years of strong revenue growth that produced budget surpluses and made possible new spending commitments.

A large portion of the problem is related to state revenues for the 2022 tax year, which are estimated to be about $25 billion lower than policymakers expected when they adopted the budget for the current fiscal year last summer.

One major factor leading to the lackluster revenue performance in 2022 was the impact of the Federal Reserve’s interest rate hikes, which decreased investment, slowed economic activity, and contributed to a steep stock market decline. The stock market drop negatively impacted personal income tax collections from high-income earners, whose income is disproportionately made up of capital gains and stock-based compensation.

The extent of the 2022 revenue shortfall only became clear in late 2023 due to the extension of tax filing deadlines for 2022 taxes to November 2023. Because of this delay, state leaders had to finalize the 2023-24 budget last June with much less complete revenue information than usual, and they enacted a budget assuming significantly more revenue for the 2022 tax year than actually materialized.

Could state revenues come in higher — or lower — than current projections?

The estimated budget shortfall is just that — an estimate. In May, the governor’s Department of Finance and the Legislative Analyst’s Office will release updated projections of the size of the budget gap. These new numbers will take into account the most recent information available on the economy, revenues, and spending needs.

The governor’s updated estimates will be unveiled in his revised budget (the “May Revision”), which must be released by May 14. The May Revision will set the stage for negotiations between the governor and legislative leaders in June over the key outlines of the 2024-25 budget package. 

At that point, the state will have mostly complete information on 2023 tax receipts since the April tax deadline will have passed. Policymakers also will have some information on 2024 tax collections from quarterly estimated tax payments by businesses and high-income individuals. However, the revenues assumed in the 2024-25 budget, when enacted this summer, will involve some projections. In other words, it is still possible that actual revenues for the 2022-23 through 2024-25 period (the “budget window”) will be higher or lower than expected. 

If revenues come in higher than anticipated, state leaders could revisit some of the spending reductions, spending delays, and/or other “budget solutions” that they decide to adopt in June. Alternatively, if revenues were to come in significantly lower, state leaders would need to take additional actions, potentially including more spending solutions, although such actions would likely not occur until early to mid-2025 as part of the 2025-26 budget cycle.

What revenue-raising options do state leaders have to balance the budget?

Policymakers have many options to increase state revenues and make the state’s tax system more fair. These options should be seriously considered, not just to address the current budget problem, but also to strengthen state services on an ongoing basis and create a more equitable state.

State leaders consistently fail to examine the tens of billions of dollars that the state loses to tax breaks each year as part of the annual budget process. Many of the largest tax breaks primarily benefit wealthy corporations and high-income individuals. Eliminating or scaling back ineffective or inequitable tax breaks would provide additional revenue to support Californians struggling with the basic costs of living while also increasing tax fairness. 

For example, the state is estimated to lose around $4 billion a year to a tax break called the “water’s edge election.” This break incentivizes corporations to avoid taxes by using foreign tax havens. Policymakers should ensure that corporations are sufficiently contributing to state revenues by reexamining this and other corporate tax breaks.

Policymakers can also restructure corporate tax rates so that the small number of immensely profitable corporations — which receive the majority of profits in the state — are subject to a higher tax rate than less profitable corporations. 

Wealthy corporations can afford to pay their fair share in state taxes. Corporate profits are near record highs, yet corporations contribute a smaller share of their profits toward state taxes than they did a generation ago due to tax cuts and tax breaks approved by state policymakers. Increasing corporate taxes would only affect businesses that report profits, so it would not impact businesses’ ability to pay their workers and cover their other expenses.

The governor did put forth modest revenue solutions in his proposed 2024-25 state budget, but they make up less than 1% of the overall package of solutions — a package that also includes substantial spending cuts that would negatively impact Californians facing the most disadvantages. Policymakers could avoid painful cuts by growing state revenues instead of focusing mainly on spending solutions as the governor has proposed.

What other options do policymakers have to balance the state budget?

Aside from increasing revenues, policymakers have several additional tools to close the budget shortfall in a way that minimizes the impact on public services — particularly services that reduce poverty and prioritize economic opportunities, well-being, and the overall improvement of Californians’ lives.

One option is to use the state’s General Fund reserves. In fact, the state has built up substantial reserves precisely to help support critical services when revenues fall short.

State leaders especially should use reserve funds to bolster programs that help Californians meet basic needs like food, health care, housing, and child care. However, reserves should be used prudently. Reserve funds may be needed over multiple fiscal years, particularly if state revenues are expected to decline over an extended period. (See below for more on the state’s General Fund reserves and how they may be used.) 

Policymakers also could borrow from state special funds. Many of the state’s 500+ special funds may have large balances that aren’t immediately needed. The state could borrow these excess revenues and use them to temporarily support services that are typically supported with General Fund dollars. The borrowed funds are later repaid with interest when General Fund revenues rebound. However, policymakers should avoid borrowing from a special fund if doing so would compromise the state’s ability to achieve the policy goal for which the fund was created.

understanding California’s State Budget reserves

Want to learn more about each of California’s budget reserve accounts? View our report California’s State Budget Reserves Explained.

Another option is to shift General Fund costs onto another fund source, such as a special fund. In this case, the dollars are not borrowed. Instead, the General Fund cost displaces spending that the special fund would otherwise have paid for. This would include, for example, shifting climate-related costs from the General Fund to the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund or paying for the state’s typical costs for Medi-Cal with revenues from the managed care organization (MCO) tax. The governor has proposed both of these actions as part of his 2024-25 spending plan.

Borrowing from and/or shifting costs onto special funds is a reasonable and prudent budgeting practice. This approach can help to close a state budget gap in a way that minimizes the need for cuts to critical public services without compromising the state’s fiscal health.

Policymakers also can revert, delay, and/or reduce appropriations to help close a budget gap.

  • A reversion means returning unspent funds to the General Fund when state costs come in “below budgeted amounts.” Funds are typically reverted after three years, but reversions can be accelerated.
  • A delay means moving an expenditure to a later period when revenues may be more robust.
  • A reduction means providing less funding than “what has been established under current law or policy.” This could involve either partially or entirely eliminating the expenditure.

Spending reductions should be used with caution and especially should avoid targeting services that support Californians’ health and well-being — things like cash aid, food assistance, child care, and health care. Services like these are lifelines for individuals and families, and cutting them would disproportionately impact low-income communities and Californians of color.

Instead, if spending reductions are needed to help balance the budget, they should target ineffective spending, such as poorly targeted tax breaks as well as the billions of dollars that annually fund the state’s costly and inequitable prison system.

How much does the state have in budget reserves, and when can those funds be used?

California policymakers’ prudent decisions to set aside funds for a rainy day mean the state has significant resources to address a budget shortfall.

At the end of January 2024, California held a total of more than $25 billion in four state budget reserves:

  • the Budget Stabilization Account (BSA),
  • the Public School System Stabilization Account (PSSSA),
  • the Safety Net Reserve, and
  • the Special Fund for Economic Uncertainties (SFEU).

California’s Constitution and state law govern when funds may be withdrawn from these reserves, the amount that can be withdrawn, and how funds may be used. For example, the state Constitution only allows withdrawals from the BSA and PSSSA if the governor declares a budget emergency and the Legislature passes a bill, by majority vote, that approves the withdrawal. In contrast, state law allows the Legislature to withdraw funds from the Safety Net Reserve or the SFEU at any time by majority vote.

All of the funds in the PSSSA, Safety Net Reserve, and SFEU may be withdrawn in one year. However, a withdrawal from the BSA is limited to the lower of the amount needed to address the budget emergency or 50% of the BSA balance — unless funds had been withdrawn in the previous fiscal year, in which case all of the funds remaining in the BSA may be accessed. 

First Look: Understanding the governor’s 2024-25 state budget proposal

Learn about the key pieces of the 2024-25 California budget proposal, and explore how the governor prioritized spending and determined cuts amid a sizable projected state budget shortfall.

The PSSSA is the only reserve with strict limits on the use of its funds, which must be provided to support K-12 schools and community colleges. On the other hand, the Legislature may use funds from the BSA and the SFEU for any purpose.

State law specifies that funds in the Safety Net Reserve are intended to support CalWORKs and Medi-Cal benefits and services during an economic downturn. However, the Legislature may allocate these funds for other purposes if the governor signs a bill to do so.

Governor Newsom’s 2024-25 budget proposes withdrawing the entire Safety Net Reserve while also making cuts to the CalWORKs program. These proposals likely run counter to the intent of the Legislature when it created a reserve fund to support families with the greatest need. Moreover, draining the Safety Net Reserve would leave no funds to support CalWORKs and Medi-Cal benefits and services if economic conditions worsen.

What should advocates keep in mind when advancing their policy priorities this year?

Advocating for policies and the funding to support them is clearly more challenging when the state faces a budget shortfall, like it does this year. In particular, proposals that call for new spending will face much greater scrutiny — and significantly higher hurdles — compared to years when state revenues are stronger. But advocates still have options for navigating a tough budget year.

Advocates can push for new revenues and a fairer tax system. Revenues are a key tool in the budget-balancing toolbox and can prevent harmful spending cuts when there’s a budget shortfall. For example, advocates can encourage state leaders to examine the tens of billions of dollars that the state loses to tax breaks each year as part of the annual budget process.

Ensuring that our state has adequate revenues to support robust public services should be a top long-term priority regardless of the state’s fiscal condition. New revenues are needed to continue making progress toward an equitable state where everyone can be healthy and thrive, and advocates can make that case even in a tough budget year.

Advocates can also urge policymakers to protect recent policy gains and funding commitments, particularly investments that help to create a more equitable state. These include investments in child care, housing, health care, assistance for older adults and people with disabilities, and other critical services. Many recent investments could be at risk if the governor’s May Revision identifies a much larger budget gap than currently anticipated, so advocates will need to make a strong case for protecting recent gains and urge policymakers to exhaust alternatives to cuts to vital services.

Furthermore, advocates can plan for the future by continuing to make the case for additional state investments that prioritize the overall improvement of Californians’ lives. Advocates can educate state leaders about Californians’ ongoing needs, highlight policy solutions, and seek allies to help advance their proposals — using both the policy bill process and the budget process. Educating policymakers today can lay the groundwork for policy wins and expanded funding when the revenue situation improves.

In some cases, state leaders may be open to adopting a policy change, while delaying implementation until funding is provided in a subsequent state budget. This approach keeps the issue on the state’s “front burner” and puts advocates in a good position to argue for the needed resources in a future state budget cycle. However, given the significant budget challenges the state is facing, policymakers may be reluctant to commit now to a future expansion of services, even if it’s only “on paper.”

Finally, advocates should keep in mind that the budget is never truly final when the governor signs the budget package into law each June. State leaders always return to the budget later in the summer, making minor and sometimes substantial changes. For example, the Legislature may pass amendments that change the spending levels in the Budget Act. Lawmakers also may pass additional trailer bills, thus increasing the size and scope of the original budget package.

Unexpected opportunities can always emerge — so advocates should be prepared to advance their priorities through the budget process year-round.

Stay in the know.

Join our email list!

key takeaway

California voters will decide on March 5th, 2024, whether to pass Proposition 1, a two-part initiative aiming to improve access to behavioral health services. This includes funding for treatment facilities, housing support, and changes to the Mental Health Services Act.

Millions of Californians who cope with behavioral health conditions — mental illness or substance use disorders — rely on services and supports that are primarily provided by California’s 58 counties. Improving California’s behavioral health system is critical to ensure access to these services for all Californians, regardless of race, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, or county of residence.

In recent years, state policymakers have launched various initiatives to transform California’s behavioral health system with the goal of improving access for Californians. The most recent of these initiatives is Prop. 1. Last year, state policymakers passed, with strong support from Governor Gavin Newsom, Senate Bill 326 and Assembly Bill 531. Together, these bills placed Prop. 1 on the March 2024 ballot.

On March 5, 2024, California voters will vote on Prop. 1, a two-part measure that would 1) amend California’s Mental Health Services Act and 2) create a $6.38 billion general obligation bond. The bond would fund:

  • Behavioral health treatment and residential facilities,
  • Supportive housing for veterans and individuals at risk of or experiencing homelessness with behavioral health challenges.

This initiative presents beneficial aspects as well as potentially adverse consequences for Californians. This Q&A provides a high-level overview of Prop. 1, including how Californians with behavioral health conditions might be impacted by its passage as well as implications for the state budget.

Key Terms

Why Does Prop. 1 Matter for Californians?

Prop. 1 would impact how many Californians access mental health services and substance use disorder treatment in their communities. It would restructure a key funding source for county behavioral health services in ways that would increase housing supports but might adversely impact counties’ ability to provide behavioral health services.

The Mental Health Services Act (MHSA), which Prop. 1 would amend, accounts for about one-third of funding for county behavioral health services. The MHSA is essential in supporting services for Californians across different ages, addressing a spectrum of mild to severe behavioral health conditions.

Prop. 1 would also authorize a statewide bond to create mental health and substance use treatment beds, and housing with supportive services for unhoused Californians with behavioral health challenges. Increased supportive housing and access to treatment facilities is crucial for Californians. Capital funds accessed through the bond portion of Prop. 1 will slightly impact the state’s ability to make budgetary decisions year-to-year. However, the capacity of the state to issue future voter-approved bonds will decrease because California has a limited ability to finance bond measures.

Changes to the MHSA will impact a system that currently supports all Californians with behavioral health conditions. In contrast, the bond focuses on individuals with behavioral conditions who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness, which is a smaller portion of the unhoused population.

As thousands of Californians across the state experience the devastating effects of homelessness and barriers to behavioral health care, policymakers are asking Californians to consider if redirecting MHSA funds and authorizing a new general obligation bond is the right approach to addressing the state’s behavioral health and homelessness crises.

What Problem Is Prop. 1 Trying to Address?

Prop. 1 aims to support Californians who are most affected by severe behavioral health conditions (mental illness and substance use disorders) and homelessness. This initiative is designed to create designated funding for mental health services and housing or treatment units for people with behavioral health conditions who are or at risk of experiencing homelessness.

In early 2023, over 181,000 Californians were counted as experiencing homelessness — the traumatic effects of which can seriously harm individuals’ well-being. Research suggests the trauma of experiencing homelessness can cause people to develop mental health problems and worsen existing behavioral health challenges and coping behaviors like substance use.

There are data challenges in quantifying exactly how many unhoused Californians have a mental health condition or substance use disorder. The 2023 homelessness point-in-time count showed 25% of the 181,399 people experiencing homelessness in California had a severe mental illness and 24% had a substance use disorder. However, while there is likely overlap between these individuals, the full extent is not reported.

Access to mental health care and substance use disorder treatment can be challenging for Californians who are unhoused. A recent statewide study found that nearly 4 in 5 unhoused Californians surveyed reported experiencing a serious mental health condition at some point in life, and those with current mental health conditions reported limited access to treatment. Additionally, 1 in 5 unhoused Californians who reported regular substance use and wanted treatment were not able to receive it.

These challenges are compounded by California’s shortage of adult psychiatric and community residential beds, which prevents Californians with serious behavioral health conditions from accessing critical behavioral health services.

What Is the Mental Health Services Act?

In 2004, California voters approved the Mental Health Services Act (Prop. 63), which created a 1% surtax on personal incomes above $1 million to provide increased funding for mental health services. Its passage signified a commitment to improving mental health outcomes for Californians, with a focus on prevention, early intervention, and community-based care. This tax supports about one-third of the state’s public mental health system.

The Mental Health Services Act has five main goals:

How Are Mental Health Services Act Funds Used Today?

The majority of MHSA funding (95%) goes directly to counties, which have some flexibility in how to use these funds.

Under current law, a small percentage of MHSA dollars (5%) is reserved for state-level administration.

How Would Prop. 1 Change Mental Health Services Act Spending?

Prop. 1 proposes significant revisions to the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA). These include:

  • Changing its name to the Behavioral Health Services Act (BHSA),
  • Expanding its scope to encompass treatment for substance use disorders.

Additionally, it would modify how MHSA funds are allocated, and introduce changes related to oversight, accountability, and the community planning process. This overview will focus on outlining the new funding structure under Prop. 1.

Under Prop. 1, counties would continue to receive the bulk of BHSA funds (90%). However, the allocation across different spending categories would change, without an increase in revenues. Counties would allocate their BHSA funds as follows:

Prop. 1 could provide some exemptions for counties with a population of less than 200,000. In addition, during the first two years of implementation, counties might have the flexibility to transfer up to 14% of their funding between these categories, with a limit of 7% per category. However, this flexibility is still pending state approval and has not been confirmed.

Another notable change is that Prop. 1 would shift a small percentage of dollars from counties to the state (from about 5% of total MHSA funding to about 10%). This would result in about $140 million annually redirected to the state budget. However, this amount could be higher or lower depending on the total amount of revenue collected from the tax.

Prop. 1 would also revise the allocation of state-level funds:

  • At least 3% to the Department of Health Care Access and Information to implement a statewide behavioral health workforce initiative.
  • At least 4% to the California Department of Public Health for population-based mental health and substance use disorder prevention programs. A minimum of 51% of these funds must be used for programs serving Californians who are 25 years or younger.

It’s worth noting that Prop. 1 would not change the tax on people with incomes over $1 million per year. This means counties would be expected to expand their scope of services without an increase in revenue. In fact, county leaders have repeatedly raised concerns about the disruption that Prop. 1 could cause. Specifically, the MHSA restructuring could result in significantly less funding for core services, which could lead to counties:

  • Canceling contracts with community-based organizations. 
  • Closing programs that are currently serving Californians.
  • Reducing county staffing.

If passed, the exact impact of Prop. 1 will vary by county and depend on how much revenue is collected in any given year. It’s important to keep in mind that the MHSA funds services for Californians of all ages for a range of conditions — mild to moderate to severe. The restructuring of MHSA funding would target a subset of this population. Therefore, programs and services for prevention and early intervention in some counties, for instance, could experience disruptions due to the new prioritization of funding.

What Can We Expect from the Behavioral Health Infrastructure Bond?

The Behavioral Health Infrastructure Bond would create a $6.38 billion general obligation bond for:

  • Infrastructure development of treatment and residential care facilities,
  • Supportive housing units for veterans and other Californians with serious mental health conditions and substance use disorders.

These funds are estimated to create up to 4,350 housing units, with 2,350 set aside for veterans, and 6,800 mental health and substance use treatment places for an approximate total of 11,150 new behavioral health and supportive housing units statewide. An estimated 26,700 outpatient treatment slots will also be created that may serve thousands of Californians annually.

Projects funded by the Behavioral Health Infrastructure Bond will be eligible for local streamlined review processes if they meet select criteria. The bond funds will be allocated as follows:

First Look: Understanding the governor's 2024-25 state budget proposal

Learn about the key pieces of the 2024-25 California budget proposal, and explore how the governor prioritized spending and determined cuts amid a sizable projected state budget shortfall.

What Would the Infrastructure Bond Mean for the State Budget?

Under Prop. 1, the state would issue up to $6.38 billion in general obligation (GO) bonds, with the funds going toward:

  • Grants or loans for vital treatment and residential care facilities,
  • Supportive housing units.

California voters have a record of funding large infrastructure projects through bonds as it does allow the state to access impactful funding amounts that are designed to serve public interests at large over many years.

In issuing bonds, the state must repay the bond debt service (which is the principal bond amount plus interest) through General Fund dollars. The most recent cost estimate assumes a 30-year debt service resulting in projected payments of roughly $310 million per year. Under this estimate, it would cost the state approximately $9.3 billion to repay the total bond debt, not including the cost of inflation. California currently spends roughly 2.5% of the state budget on repaying various bond obligations voters have decided on in the past.

While there are ways to equitably reform the state budget’s revenue streams, policymakers must balance the yearly limited discretionary flexible dollars in the General Fund. GO bonds in essence prioritize increased debt-service payments to be drawn from the General Fund over potential ongoing or one-time funding. Repaying the bond portion of Prop. 1 is a trade-off that will slightly reduce the flexible dollars left for other vital public services that may already serve Californians with behavioral health conditions and those at risk of or experiencing homelessness. It also challenges the state’s capacity to fund future voter-approved bonds since California has limitations on financing bond measures.

Another consideration is the ongoing operating costs that will be needed to adequately sustain the facilities produced through Prop. 1. As explained above, the MHSA restructuring does designate 30% to housing interventions which includes rental and operating subsidies. The funds can presumably help sustain facilities that are projected to be secured through the bond funding. However, it is uncertain whether these funds and those from other sources will be sufficient and accessed efficiently to ensure adequate upkeep, staffing, and proper care for the Californians receiving housing and services through these projects.

The infrastructure projects funded under the bond would build on existing state programs that received one-time funding through previous budget allocations or voter-approved bonds which are close to being depleted.

How Might Californians Be Impacted by Prop. 1?

The proposal presents various promising aspects. First of all, the expansion of services to substance use disorder treatment is positive. This broadened scope recognizes that mental health challenges and substance use disorders sometimes occur together. In fact, more than 1 in 4 adults living with a serious mental illness also have a substance use disorder. This underscores the importance of providing treatment for both conditions.

Another positive aspect of this proposal is the prioritization of treatment facilities and supportive housing infrastructure for Californians at risk of or experiencing homelessness with behavioral health conditions. Due to racism, ableism, and other forms of discrimination, some Californians are more likely to experience the devastating effects of homelessness at some point in their lifetime. This disparity is particularly stark for Black, Indigenous and Pacific Islander Californians, adults without children, older adults, and transgender and other LGBTQ+ individuals.

Notably, the new investments and prioritization of funds under Prop. 1 target a small but important share of the unhoused population. The majority of unhoused Californians face short-term homelessness (61%), for which deeply affordable permanent housing is needed. For those who are chronically homeless (39%) and may have behavioral health challenges, the increased supportive housing units are crucial if they are appropriately sustained with wraparound supportive services.

One concern about Prop. 1 is the restructuring of funding under the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA). While the exact consequences of this change are not entirely clear for each county, it could have adverse effects. The MHSA has been instrumental in providing innovative, community-based services for historically underserved communities, including people of color and LGBTQ+ communities. Given that county leaders have expressed that this initiative could result in less funding for core services, Prop. 1 could negatively impact services for Californians of color and LGBTQ+ communities that are currently supported by MHSA funding.

A key flaw of this initiative is that it expands the scope of the MHSA and prioritizes funding for people who are or at risk of experiencing homelessness without increasing the tax or providing new revenue to support existing county behavioral health programs. This approach is concerning, as it redirects funds originally allocated for a specific purpose to address a different need.

What Are Supporters and Opponents Saying?

supporters

Supporters claim that Prop. 1 would prioritize existing funds and generate new funds for Californians with the most severe behavioral health needs and those living in encampments. Other supporters assert that the proposition is a beneficial component in advancing the variety of interventions needed to address California’s housing and homelessness challenges. Supporters of Prop. 1 include California Big City Mayors as well as some behavioral health and housing advocates.

opponents

Opponents, including disability rights advocates and peer support advocates, argue that Prop. 1 represents a significant regression in the treatment of mental illness and substance use disorders, likening its impact to a 50-year setback. This perspective stems from allowing funding to be used for involuntary or forced treatment facilities. Opponents also claim that Prop. 1 could result in reduced mental health services for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color and LGBTQ+ Californians.

Stay in the know.

Join our email list!