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It's hard to know in politics whether one's revealing one's priorities is a bold play of one's hand or a roadmap to how others can extract a higher price in exchange for that priority.

For Senate Democrats, at least as the 2014 state budget season begins, the decision is to go big when it comes to transitional kindergarten.

"Yes," said Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, on Tuesday when asked whether a boost in transitional kindergarten funding was at the top of the wish list.

"I can't think of anything more important."

The legislation Steinberg and other Democrats introduced seeks to fully fund California's fledgling school program for 4-year old children over a five year period beginning in 2015. The product of efforts to raise the entry age for kindergarten in 2010, funding for transitional kindergarten was noticeably scaled back during the state's budget deficit years. Currently, officials say only about one in four eligible children are able to find a spot.

Democrats say their proposal would cost $198 million in its first fiscal year (2015-16), rising to an annual expense of $990 by full implementation.

In promoting the plan during a Tuesday event at a Sacramento school, senators said they see it as the next step towards education efforts aimed at children from low income and English learner families.

"We've worked on all these other issues," said state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens. "But English language learners continue to fall behind."

The bill by Senate Democrats follows an earlier note of support for fully funding transitional kindergarten in a budget plan floated by Assembly Democrats. Both houses will begin to examine Gov. Jerry Brown's budget plans in detail in the next few weeks, after he delivers his 2014-15 plan to the Legislature on Friday.

Senate leader Steinberg said the phase-in of full funding is an acknowledgment that lawmakers should be cautious in committing to new and ongoing spending. Educators also point out that the proposal, which calls for two teachers per class and smaller class sizes, will take time to put in place.

The question, though, is how many other programs that affect young children will Democrats lobby for in the coming debate over how to handle the expected multi-billion dollar surplus?

"The unique thing about childhood is, you don't get a do-over," said state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, as she noted other early childhood programs that were cut back in recent years. "And so we have to play catch-up."

John Myers is News10's political editor. Check out his Twitter feed on California politics, his Facebook page, and the weekly News10 Capitol Connection politics podcast.

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