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Torres Aims to Wrest Control of Program for Crime Victims

Times Staff Writer

State Sen. Art Torres began an uphill fight Thursday to wrest control of the troubled Victims of Crime program away from Gov. George Deukmejian and turn it over to Controller Gray Davis.

The Los Angeles Democrat successfully completed his first move when he persuaded a Senate subcommittee Thursday to approve an amendment to Deukmejian’s $44.3-billion budget that would transfer funding for the program to the controller’s office midway through the next fiscal year. Torres has another bill, awaiting action in the Assembly, that would give the controller the legal authority to administer the program.

Deukmejian’s press secretary, Kevin Brett, said the governor is strongly opposed to the program transfer. “It’ll never happen,” Brett said.

‘The Best Place’

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Torres, who has been conducting a legislative review of the program, said the controller’s office “is the best place to put the victims program” because Davis already has a well-trained auditing and fiscal review staff in place.

The victims program is now being managed by the Board of Control, an agency that operates under the Department of General Services. “The Board of Control just isn’t equipped to deal with the program,” Torres complained.

In March, the nonpartisan auditor general disclosed that the victims program is marred by long delays and poor management that is keeping benefits from reaching crime victims in a timely fashion. The program was created to reimburse victims of crimes for medical care, wage loss and other costs resulting from crimes. This year it is expected to give crime victims about $40 million.

After the auditor general’s report came out, Deukmejian promised to fix the problem of delays in getting the money into the hands of crime victims, an embarrassment to him because of his long background as an advocate for crime victims, first as an assemblyman and then as attorney general. Under the law, the board must pay or deny claims within 90 days. But the auditor general disclosed that the average wait for claims it watched was 231 days.

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Torres complained that he has not seen “any improvement” in the program since the auditor general’s report.

His proposal was approved by a Senate budget and fiscal review subcommittee headed by Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Los Angeles) on a 2-1 vote. The no vote was cast by Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia), giving the action a partisan flavor. Controller Davis is a Democrat who often is rumored as a possible challenger to Deukmejian if the governor runs for another term, as expected, in 1990.

But Robbins said the action reflects longstanding dissatisfaction with the way the victims program is being run. “It’s been a problem for years. The Board of Control’s handling of the victims program has not worked. It may have been a mistake from the beginning to have placed it with the board,” Robbins said.

Separate Bill Needed

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Even if the proposal wins legislative support--full budget committees in both the Senate and Assembly must still give their stamp of approval--Torres must also win passage of a separate bill necessary to provide the statutory authority to transfer the program from the Board of Control to the controller’s office.

Brett said Deukmejian will never sign such a bill.

Just Wednesday, Deukmejian personally visited Board of Control offices to give the staff of the crime victims program what was described as a “pep talk” and urge them to improve their processing of claims. The session was closed to the press.

Austin Eaton, executive officer of the Board of Control, said Thursday that he was disappointed that the subcommittee took the action to transfer the program because they earlier approved a $2-million-plus budget increase that would allow the Board of Control to hire 30 new claims processors and supervisors to cut into the backlog.

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‘Rally Victims Groups’

“We think it is counterproductive to talk about moving the program when we are in the process of installing the kinds of measures that will get us to that 90-day goal,” Eaton said.

Despite Deukmejian’s opposition, Torres said he will go ahead with his plan. “At this point, we have to rally victims groups across the state who want something to be done now. Hopefully, that will convince the governor,” Torres said.

Controller Davis, who sits as a member of the Board of Control but has no administrative responsibilities for the victims program, so far is publicly neutral on the proposed transfer of authority, but privately he is said to be enthusiastic about receiving the high-visibility program.

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During an interview Thursday, Davis said Torres has not discussed the proposed move with him. He said, however, that his office could “perform these additional duties professionally and promptly. We have over 300 auditors who review literally billions of dollars every year. We have built-in expertise.”

Davis has also been publicly critical of the program, saying it needs an independent monitor to act as a watchdog and protect victims’ interests.


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