Capitol Journal

Should California really brace itself to lose lots of federal money under Trump?

President Trump has been threatening to cut off federal funds to California if it continues to be a “sanctuary” for illegal immigration. But does he know what he’s talking about? Or just blowing smoke?

Trump doesn’t seem to be the bluffing type. A bullying sort, yes. Regardless, his bark may be more ferocious than his bite when it comes to federal funding.

For one thing, court decisions have restricted a president’s ability to hold back federal money from state and local governments. There has to be a connection — a nexus — between the federal funds and the local program that’s being stiffed.

Presumably federal healthcare dollars, for example, can’t be withheld merely because a state refuses to help the feds enforce immigration laws.

Second, an executive order such as Trump signed is not a statute. A federal statute — a law — can only be passed by Congress. And Congress has the exclusive power to appropriate money.

So it’s not like Trump can just call up some staffer and tell him not to cut any more checks for California — both the state government and the so-called sanctuary cities.

California officials get Trump’s drift. He wants the state to help enforce federal immigration laws. But they’re confused about what punishment he plans if they don’t oblige. And they’re emphatically insisting they won’t.

Trump may be mixed up himself about his options. His top priority seemed to be to quickly keep a campaign promise, rather than take the time to create a substantive policy.

“We don’t know what it means,” says Matt Cate, executive director of the California State Assn. of Counties, referring to the president’s executive order. “But there’s enough there to make us legitimately concerned.

“The dollar amounts are large enough that cutting them could cause irreparable harm to the counties and their residents. So we’re uncertain and concerned.”

Trump’s executive order notified sanctuary cities and counties — there are around 40 in California — that they’ll lose federal funds if they don’t start cooperating with immigration agents, especially concerning criminals.

The Legislature is moving swiftly toward making the entire state a sanctuary for immigrants. State and local law enforcement agencies would be barred from using their officers or jails to uphold federal immigration laws. The feds would have to do it by themselves.

The president’s order says it’s his policy to “ensure that jurisdictions that fail to comply with applicable federal law do not receive federal funds, except as mandated by law.” So that last phrase is significant.

Trump couldn’t cut the funds alone. If a federal law mandated them, Congress presumably would need to change that law.

Also, because of court nexus decisions, the feds apparently could eliminate federal dollars to a law enforcement agency if it didn’t cooperate on illegal immigration. But it couldn’t cut back, for example, on welfare programs.

Trump’s executive order, however, seems to contradict that nexus logic. It states that noncooperating local agencies “are not eligible to receive federal grants except as deemed necessary for law enforcement purposes.”

I’m no lawyer, but that seems to exempt police or sheriff’s departments from federal money cuts.

“We need more clarity from the [Trump] administration,” says Eva Spiegel, spokeswoman for the League of California Cities.

It won’t come from Trump’s incessant tweets. He tapped out another one last week denouncing UC Berkeley after it canceled a speech by far-right firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos. UC acted wisely to quell violent protests.

Trump: “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view — NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”

Bizarre. A president can’t legally cut off federal money to a campus just because he doesn’t like its speakers’ list. Anyway, doesn’t he have something more important to fret about?

On paper, California is very vulnerable to Trump’s whims. But in reality, not so much.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office counted all the federal money spent in California during 2015 and it totaled about $368 billion. But 22% was Social Security payments and 19% went for Medicare. That stuff is bulletproof. Also, 15% was spent on Medi-Cal healthcare for the poor and 9% on defense contracts.

Counties got $11 billion in federal funds during 2015, according to their Sacramento lobby. Los Angeles’ share was $3.4 billion.

State government expects to receive $105 billion from Washington in the next fiscal year, says the governor’s finance department. Of that, $78 billion is for health and human services, mostly Medi-Cal. A very vulnerable $17 billion of that is targeted for Obamacare, which Republicans intend to repeal.

K-12 and higher education expect to receive $12.7 billion from the feds. Transportation is in line for about $5 billion.

Only $100 million — one-tenth of 1% of the total federal dollars — goes to prisons. The feds pay roughly 10% of the cost of incarcerating undocumented immigrant criminals. They’re 12.6% of the state prison population. California usually must fight to get the money.

Willie Brown, former San Francisco mayor and state Assembly speaker, tossed out a nutty idea last week to punish the federal government for punishing California. He suggested California refuse to pay federal taxes — or some vague thing like that.

Yeah, right. Forget I mentioned it.

California could lose a few bucks if Trump figures out what he’s doing. But it probably would amount to little more than what’s generally called budget dust.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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