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Gavin Newsom faces budget backlash — from his closest allies

SACRAMENTO, California — One of the nation’s largest teachers unions is escalating its pressure campaign against Gov. Gavin Newsom, unveiling TV ads that swipe at a loyal ally over education spending cuts amid a massive budget shortfall.

The California Teachers Association on Tuesday released a spot that features Newsom himself, in 2021, promising not to let the education system backslide. The ad is set to begin running on TV in Sacramento later this week.

“Tell lawmakers and Governor Newsom to pass a state budget that protects public schools for our students and communities,” the union’s ad urges, after ticking through a bleak picture of crowded classrooms, teacher layoffs and cutbacks on nurses and counselors.

While the ads challenge Newsom in far less personal terms than the union has unleashed on past adversaries like former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the very fact that it green-lighted the incursion represents a surprising and sudden rebuke of the Democratic governor from within his own party.

The 310,000-member union is a dominant force in Democratic politics and a key Newsom ally that endorsed his last two campaigns for governor, helped him fend off a recall effort and donated to a mental health ballot initiative he championed. Its incoming advertising bombardment places Newsom, who is widely expected to run for president in 2028, in unfamiliar territory.

The governor has defended his leaner budget proposal as the most prudent way to dig the state out of two consecutive $28 billion shortfalls, while acknowledging that the proposed cuts are difficult. To avoid clawing back more than $8 billion in school spending, he has outlined a complicated accounting maneuver that would largely spare education funding now but reduce the amount of money guaranteed to schools by nearly $12 billion in the future.

“We have a math problem,” he conceded earlier this month when presenting his updated budget proposal to reporters in Sacramento. “Is this what I want to do? No. But the alternative [is] we can eliminate our expansion of health care. We can eliminate wages, we can do furloughs, we can do layoffs, we can do a lot of things. I don’t want to do those things.”

Newsom’s office was notified ahead of the teachers union’s ad campaign launch. A spokesperson for the governor declined to specifically comment on the blitz. An official from Newsom’s Department of Finance, H.D. Palmer, told POLITICO the plan is actually meant to shield the education system from cuts.

“This budget proposal is not only legal and constitutional in our view, but is designed to provide predictable and stable support for K-12 schools and community colleges in the wake of last year’s unprecedented disruption in revenue projections,” Palmer said in a statement.

The total size of the buy remains unknown, with the ad-tracking service AdImpact showing an initial investment in the Sacramento media market.

The public backlash against Newsom’s efforts to address what is by one measure the largest budget shortfall in state history has extended to other longtime boosters, including Planned Parenthood and the heavyweight Service Employees International Union California — which has planned a rally at the Capitol Wednesday to blast cuts.

The teachers union frames the governor’s plans as an immediate issue. But the CTA’s posture is as much about fighting what the school lobby deems a dangerous precedent in a state that has experienced turbulent swings from deficit to surplus, and back again.

The union has even threatened to sue the state, a tactic it has employed against other governors in education funding fights. Litigation would not be resolved before the state budget is due in June, but blocking future governors from using the same accounting gimmick as Newsom during revenue declines may be worth it for the labor group.

“This is a clear violation of the Constitution,” CTA President David Goldberg said at a Friday news conference. “When you have clear violations of the Constitution, often you go to legal remedies, so that is definitely one of the tools in our toolbox.”

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office also warned the proposal would set a problematic precedent, calling it “bad fiscal policy.” Asked earlier this month about that assessment, Newsom defended his plan as an effort to leave core education programs intact.

“We respectfully disagree with that position,” Newsom said, “I want to maintain the commitments in terms of the investments we’ve made, which I think are incredibly important. I don’t want to see thousands and thousands of pink slips go out. I don’t want to see the disruption in the system.”

The teachers union rarely criticizes Newsom so publicly. It spent handily to help him defeat charter school proponent and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in 2018 and the recall election three years later. The union also donated $250,000 to a signature Newsom mental health initiative campaign that squeaked out a victory this spring.

In 2021, it launched ads warning that schools should not reopen without a focus on safety protocols as Newsom pushed for a return to in-person instruction. But most ads from that time did not mention the governor or Legislature, except for one warning of education spending cuts from a pandemic-era recession that never materialized.

For the moment, the union needs Newsom more than he needs them. He’ll oversee two more budgets before he terms out in 2026, and the union wants him to sign legislation it’s sponsoring including a bill that would grant paid parental leave to teachers who become pregnant. But Newsom could certainly benefit from a repaired alliance with the largest state-level teachers union in the country should he run for president.

The union downplayed the rift in a statement Tuesday about the ads, calling Newsom “a steadfast ally” and noting previous ad campaigns that called attention to the Capitol.

“We have a fundamental disagreement with his approach to the education budget this year and the long term impact on Proposition 98,” Goldberg said in the statement. “We have disagreed on things in the past and worked through them.”

The state’s next-largest education union, the CFT, also opposes Newsom’s education budget proposal, along with proposed cuts to social services — but its president, Jeff Freitas, suggested the dispute hasn’t irreparably harmed the governor’s relationship with education labor groups more broadly.

“I wouldn’t say the honeymoon is over,” said Freitas. “He’s worked with partners very closely, but also has to make tough decisions at the same time.”

The California Teachers Association has battled dwindling numbers in recent years and its influence in Sacramento is now rivaled, if not surpassed, by SEIU. Yet it remains formidable on the election trail, in the halls of the Capitol in Sacramento and, once again, on the airwaves.

The ad is reminiscent of a tactic teachers have long used to carpet-bomb partisan rivals, including former Republican governors Schwarzenegger and Pete Wilson.

Despite donating hundreds of millions to Democrats and their initiatives, the teachers union also has been willing to split with California’s ruling party during periodic revenue downturns that have not only slashed school funding but made bargaining more difficult for local affiliates.

“If you look back to the Great Recession, CTA took ads out against Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg in Sacramento, a Democrat,” said Freitas. “When there is a limited amount of financing, and things are looking to be cut, we fight to protect the systems that we work in.”

The school lobbying drive has divided state legislators, who are faced with accepting Newsom’s proposal or forwarding deeper immediate spending cuts to other programs.

Democratic Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, a Democrat who is exploring a run for state schools superintendent in 2026, has publicly sided with the union on the issue. The union has frequently played kingmaker in that race, most recently helping Superintendent Tony Thurmond defeat charter school backer Marshall Tuck in 2018 — and then coast to reelection four years later.

The governor “has clearly stated his desire to protect classroom funding,” Muratsuchi said in an interview. “But the bottom line is: We have to be concerned not just about classroom funding for this budget year, but for future budget years. And that’s why it’s so important to defend Proposition 98.”

Legislators have debated alternatives to Newsom’s budget proposal, but some are undecided on how to proceed. Newsom’s plan would reduce per-pupil spending by around $160 this year after California provided years of large funding increases to schools.

“There’s points to be noted on both sides,” said state Sen. John Laird, chair of his chamber’s education budget panel. He pointed out that if the Legislature rejects Newsom’s proposal — which would have the state effectively take out a zero-interest loan from itself and pay back the money later — it would need to find nearly $9 billion somewhere else in the budget to insulate schools from massive spending reductions.

“It’s the governor’s call on how to handle this with the education interests,” Laird added.

Rachel Bluth and Christopher Cadelago contributed to this report.

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