News Column

For California's Needy, State Budget Is Partial Victory

Page 2 of 1

Heartened by the recovering economy and a successful ballot initiative to raise taxes, Democrats and social service advocates entered into budget exercises at the Capitol this spring expecting this to be a time of restoration.

After years of spending cuts, they cheered the budget Gov. Jerry Brown signed Thursday for its promise to expand Medi-Cal coverage to nearly 1 million low-income Californians under the federal health care overhaul in the upcoming fiscal year, and to more than 1.6 million Californians by 2015.

The $96.3 billion spending plan also includes more money for welfare, dental and mental health programs for some of California's poorest and neediest residents.

Yet funding for many of these programs remains less than Democrats and service providers hoped, and much of it will not materialize for months after the new budget year starts Monday.

"Obviously, a year in which we're going to expand (Medi-Cal) coverage to 1 million people is going to be more positive than negative," said Anthony Wright, director of the nonprofit advocacy group Health Access California.

But Wright's organization has estimated the state cut more than $15 billion in health and human services during the recession.

"If you look at what was restored," Wright said, "it was probably less than $1 billion overall."

In a signing ceremony at the Capitol on Thursday, Brown proclaimed the budget's enactment a "momentous occasion."

"We are investing in significant programs," the Democratic governor said. "It's about education, and it's about health -- things the people of California care most about."

In addition to the health care expansion and shifting more education money to poor and English-learning students, the budget includes about $51 million for a 5 percent increase in monthly grants under California's welfare-to-work program, CalWORKs, and partial restoration of funding for dental care for poor adults.

Neither of those funding increases will take effect immediately, however. Increased CalWORKs grants will come in March 2014, and preventive adult dental benefits won't be available until May 1.

It won't be until the 2014-15 budget year that the state makes available another program included in the budget, a scholarship to offset tuition and fees at public universities and community colleges by as much as 40 percent for students whose families earn less than $150,000.

"Of course it's not enough," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. "But there's no way we could make up for five, six years of devastating cuts in one year."

He said, "This is a start, and it's a very good start."

Some increased funding will take effect immediately. Addressing one of Steinberg's priorities, the budget includes $206 million to create 25 mobile crisis support teams and at least 2,000 beds in local treatment centers to help people with mental illnesses.

The funding will help local agencies hire triage workers to arrange services for the mentally ill.

"As a result of that particular proposal," Steinberg said, "thousands of people, over time, who are ending up in emergency rooms and jails or other the streets, are going to get help."

He said the enactment of a balanced budget is significant in that it "represents fiscal health," while in the social services "there are a lot of things to celebrate."

Other services, however, continue to be cut. The budget includes a previously negotiated 8 percent reduction in providers' hours and wages for the care of homebound disabled and elderly people in In-Home Supportive Services program.

For some recipients of those services, frustration was compounded when the California Citizens Compensation Commission voted this month to grant a 5 percent pay raise to state lawmakers and constitutional officers, partially restoring pay cuts imposed during the recession.

"My daughter's in-home operations nurse, she's going to lose 10 percent of her pay," said Dianne Carle, a Roseville woman who has two disabled children who require 24-hour care.

Carle, who also laments the impact of funding reductions for autism services her son receives, said, "These IHSS people only make $10 an hour. It's not like they're living high on the hog -- and the Legislature ... they restored their 5 percent pay cut."

Brown on Thursday announced he had made only a relatively small number of line item vetoes to the budget, totaling about $40 million. Among them, Brown vetoed his own proposal to earmark $20 million in funding for online education.

Brown, who proposed in January to provide $10 million each to the University of California and California State University systems to expand the number of courses available online, will include that money in the college systems' annual allocation, but without requiring it to be spent on online education.

Also Thursday, the state Assembly passed a modified version of Brown's proposal to restructure an enterprise zone program of hiring tax credits that has been criticized as wasteful and ineffective by the governor and labor unions.

The legislation passed in the lower house 54-17, after clearing the Senate on Tuesday.

Brown, who persuaded legislative Democrats to accept relatively conservative revenue estimates for the year, said the budget "included enough" for safety-net programs.

Assemblyman Richard Pan, a Sacramento Democrat, said state leaders' first goal has been "maintaining fiscal stability in the state."

Pan, a doctor, cited $33.8 million in increased funding for dental care for poor adults as one example of a "very important step forward."

"Yeah, it doesn't start in the beginning of the year," he said, "but at least it's coming back."

Other Democratic lawmakers have said they may lobby Brown for midyear spending increases if revenue exceeds expectations, and they could have an opportunity.

Brown's Department of Finance reported last week that the state collected nearly $1 billion more in tax revenue in May than the administration most recently projected.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office said last week that June revenue could also come in higher. However, the analyst's office cautioned, final revenue determinations will not be certain for several months.

Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell, a Los Angeles Democrat, pushed this spring for a 12 percent funding increase for CalWORKs grants. She described the process resulting in a 5 percent increase as one that "really went very well."

"I really thought, let's shoot for the stars and see how far we get," she said.

Compared to previous years, Mitchell said, "It's significant. It's significant."

Even at current levels, Republican Sen. Bill Emmerson of Hemet said he fears the effect of spending dependent on the passage of Proposition 30, which increased certain taxes only temporarily.

"My biggest fear is we're going to create another budget hole to the general fund after Prop. 30 goes away," he said. "If the economy does not grow sufficiently, then we're going to get another budget crisis in the future."

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(c)2013 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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