California Democrats plan budget that rejects deeper safety-net cuts
Published: Thursday, June 14, 2012
Updated: Thursday, June 14, 2012 10:06
SACRAMENTO, Calif. - California legislative Democrats are poised to send Gov. Jerry Brown a budget that avoids deep new cuts in safety-net programs while reducing state worker pay and taking funds from courts and counties.
To help bridge a $15.7 billion deficit, the Democratic governor has asked his own party's lawmakers to overhaul welfare-to-work, slash in-home care and require low-income students to earn higher grades for scholarship aid.
But Democrats plan to reject more than $1 billion of those cuts, saying the state has already balanced enough prior budgets on the backs of poor Californians. They lack a deal with Brown, but lawmakers face a Friday constitutional deadline to send him a budget or lose their pay.
Legislative leaders released a proposal Wednesday that instead would nearly halve the size of Brown's $1 billion reserve, recalculate education funding formulas to save $330 million and take $250 million in funds that counties expected to receive.
Democrats would adopt most of Brown's budget proposal, including a 5 percent reduction in state worker pay that still must be negotiated with unions and an overhaul of expensive health care for low-income Medi-Cal patients with significant needs. They are also counting on voters raising taxes in November on sales and high-income earners to plug more than one-third of the budget gap.
"I strongly believe that the differences between the governor's proposal and our proposal are bridgeable," said Assembly Speaker John A. Perez. "Frankly, we're not only on the same page as the governor, we're in the same paragraph."
In previous years, Democrats agreed to reduce the amount of time welfare recipients could receive aid, slashed SSI/SSP payments for low-income elderly and eliminated Medi-Cal services such as dental care for adults. Many of those cuts came when Democrats had to negotiate with Republicans and faced a more dramatic deficit problem after the recession.
But Democrats this time plan to adopt very few safety-net cuts that reduce the level of services below what the state now provides.
Democratic leaders said Wednesday that as long as they can show their budget is legitimately balanced this year and over the next three years, the state should avoid the types of cuts Brown wants.
"There is no reason to have to cut deeper to the people who can least afford it," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.
Democrats would reject Brown's proposals to save money by requiring Cal Grant recipients to get higher grades to receive college aid. They would agree to cut off aid to students at marginal schools with high loan defaults and low graduation rates, and they would delay a grant cut for students at private colleges until 2013-14.
In child care, Brown wants to save $452 million largely by forcing low-income families to use lower-cost providers and cutting services for parents who don't seek work. Democrats would reject those ideas but agree to reduce funding by $50 million to eliminate 6,600 child care slots. They also would save about $220 million with an accounting change that uses K-14 funds to pay for preschool for low-income children.
Democrats would continue a 3.6 percent reduction in hours for 423,000 in-home care recipients, though they consider it a "new" $59 million cut because it was set to expire June 30. Brown instead wanted a 7 percent cut overall and elimination of pay for domestic services such as laundry and housecleaning for caregivers who live with their recipients.
"The whole trend is to go back to the good old days before there was even any need to make reductions," said Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, vice chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee.
Republicans, whose votes Democrats do not need, have attacked the majority party for lack of transparency. Senate Republicans issued a letter Wednesday saying they will not participate in budget hearings or vote unless they have bills 24 hours in advance.
Rather than remake the state's welfare-to-work system, known as CalWORKs, Democrats propose extending a policy of giving parents of young children cash aid without requiring them to seek work or training. The state saves $327 million in the short run because those parents do not get expensive child care, transportation or job training.
Democrats said that makes sense because it is difficult enough for trained workers to obtain jobs when unemployment remains nearly 11 percent in California.
"We have 2 million people out of work in California, we don't have 2 million jobs available," Perez said. "It is inefficient and quite frankly foolish to invest in training for jobs that don't exist."
Brown instead wants Democrats to restructure the CalWORKs program with harsher consequences for parents who do not work or seek training after two years rather than four years. He also wants to cut grants for "child-only" cases from $516 to $375 monthly.
The governor's plan would save $880 million. He rebuked Democrats on Tuesday for not pursuing structural welfare changes, and his aides said legislators were moving in the wrong direction.
Steinberg acknowledged that continuing to allow some parents to receive aid without seeking work is not ideal.
"I am open to working with the governor in a way that helps bring back the work requirement," Steinberg said. "But not in a way that arbitrarily cuts people off who are the verge of self-sufficiency."