IMMIGRATION / FUNDING FIGHT : After 4 Years of Playing Host, Whose Turn to Pick Up Tab?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

California and other states with substantial numbers of new citizens say the federal government is reneging on its promise to help pay the costs associated with the landmark 1986 amnesty law.

Four years ago, Congress authorized a $4-billion program to reimburse state and local governments for providing medical, welfare and educational costs for millions of formerly illegal immigrants.

California Impact

The State Legalization Impact Assistance Grants program, know as SLIAG, has become an annual budgetary battleground. The conflict pits lawmakers from the states that are major potential recipients of the funds--principally California, Florida, Texas, New York and Illinois--against the Bush Administration's budget cutters and legislators from other states.

The stakes have escalated this year. President Bush has proposed a $1.1-billion reduction in SLIAG funds, ensuring a bitter fight this fall. The cut would shift the costs to state and local governments, many of which are already hard pressed.

California, which has 1.6 million of the 3 million immigrants who have applied for amnesty under the 1986 immigration reform law, receives 58% of the funds.

Los Angeles County, in turn, is home to one of every four amnesty applicants nationwide. These 850,000 residents account for 10% of the county's total population and about 20% of all patients who receive medical care from the county.

The proposed cutbacks would cost Los Angeles County $200 million over the next two fiscal years and force a 40% reduction in county funding of six public hospitals, said Virginia A. Collins, the county's division chief for state and federal programs. Care would be seriously delayed or curtailed for 80,000 hospital patients and 51,000 outpatients, she said.

"Less SLIAG funds also will mean less funds for AIDS testing and treatment, prenatal care and other needed services," Collins recently told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee.

Background

The 1986 amnesty law called for annual appropriations of $1 billion over four years, ending in 1991, with payments to local governments to be spread over seven years. SLIAG money has accumulated because the federal government was slow to adopt procedures for state and municipal governments to seek reimbursement, local officials say. Hence, Congress allocated more money in the past three years than the program spent.

Although the funds can be used until 1994, Administration and congressional proponents of reducing SLIAG reimbursements maintain that the surplus indicates that less money is needed than initially anticipated.

Last year, Congress cut $555 million from the third annual $1-billion appropriation by shifting the funds to anti-drug programs and medical research. One senator called it a "SLIAG feeding frenzy." Following an appeal by Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), Congress stipulated that the diverted money would be restored in 1992.

Cutbacks Likely

SLIAG advocates contend that the program's costs will reach at least the original $4-billion target by 1994.

Bush, however, has called for reducing the federal grants by $537 million in 1991 and rescinding the $555-million repayment in 1992. The House included full funding for 1991 in its budget, but the Senate is expected to adopt Bush's $537-million cut.

If that occurs, the fight will shift to a joint conference committee of both houses, which could decide to reduce funding in 1991 but call for its restoration in 1993--postponing the battle to yet another day.

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