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$24 Million OKd to Serve Disabled : Funding Bill to Keep Centers Open Wins Final Approval

Times Staff Writer

Lawmakers broke a partisan stalemate Monday and voted final passage for a $24.5-million emergency funding bill to keep open the state’s 21 service centers for 90,000 mentally retarded and developmentally disabled Californians.

In the Assembly, where Republicans and Democrats had bickered for two weeks over the best way to finance the centers, the vote was 74 to 2. Shortly afterward, the Senate, which already voted once in favor of the legislation, approved the amended bill 36 to 0.

The bill, introduced by Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim), now goes to Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, who is expected to sign it.

Passage of the measure came in time to allow the centers, which provide a variety of support services for the mentally retarded and developmentally disabled, to continue operating with no interruption of services, state officials said.

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Officials operating the centers warned earlier that they would have to begin closing their doors, or at least sharply reducing their services, as early as mid-March if the Legislature did not act.

“We’re delighted. We think it came in time to avert closures or major disruptions. It sure was a cliffhanger, though,” said Judith Poindexter, executive director of the San Gabriel/Pomona Regional Center in Los Angeles County.

She and other regional center operators, as well as hundreds of mentally retarded people, mounted an aggressive public relations and lobbying campaign to win passage of the bill. They wrote letters, made telephone calls, and held rallies in cities throughout the state. One official predicted that the prolonged battle to win passage of the bill would leave scars.

“Passage of the bill came in time to keep the centers open, but not in time to prevent a lot of pain and anguish by the people served by the centers. People who rely on the centers are less confident and more aware of the vulnerability of the system now,” said Sandra Virago, executive director of the Assn. of Regional Center Agencies.

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From the beginning, the political battle centered not on the value of the services provided by the centers, but where the money would come from to keep them operating.

Democrats, contending that the state is broke, refused to go along with Deukmejian’s proposal to borrow the money from a special fund. They fought for a long-term solution. But, with the state having only $3 million in its budget reserve, that could have meant a tax increase.

The problem began when the federal government last year rejected a Deukmejian Administration application to finance the program. The state then went to court to appeal the decision. The Administration, confident of prevailing with its appeal, said money borrowed to keep the centers running would be paid back once the state won its case.

The compromise calls for the Department of Developmental Services, which has an annual budget of nearly $1 billion and oversees programs for the mentally retarded, to continue funding the centers until May. At that time, the Deukmejian Administration will have prepared its final revenue estimates for the budget year. Then, if the state has the money, financing for the programs will come from the state general fund. If not, then the money will be borrowed from the motor vehicle license fund. It would be repaid in July after the state starts the new 1989-90 fiscal year.

Assemblyman John Vasconcellos (D-San Jose), chairman of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, cast one of the two no votes against the bill. He continued to insist that funding the program would jeopardize other programs because the state is short of cash. He called the legislation irresponsible.

But Assemblyman William P. Baker (R-Danville), who led the fight to pass the bill in the Assembly, said during the floor debate that “we fully expect that the federal government will give us the money” to help finance the centers. Baker said key Democratic and Republican lawmakers reached their basic agreement Friday, then presented it to their colleagues Monday.

In the other house, Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) said Democrats did not want to go along with the compromise funding plan but felt they had no other choice. “We did not want to hold the developmentally disabled hostage because their needs are just too great,” Roberti said.


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