Senate Leader Bill Lockyer said Wednesday that state takeover of county programs for the poorest of the poor will be a top priority of Democrats this year and proposed a way to finance it.
Lockyer’s plan would have the state step forward and assume most of the financial responsibility for the county General Assistance program that provides small cash benefits to needy Californians who do not qualify for other aid.
To pay for it, Lockyer suggested that the state use money earmarked for state courts. Lockyer said he presented the idea to Gov. Pete Wilson’s staff this week as part of stalled discussions about long-term court funding.
The approach would conflict with Wilson’s welfare plan that favors dropping the requirement that counties pay for General Assistance welfare payments. But he has never proposed that the state take it over.
Lockyer, speaking on a range of topics at a breakfast meeting with Times reporters, said that if counties are merely allowed to drop the program, many of the state’s most destitute people would be put at risk.
“I think there is some sympathy for people who are just on the edge of Calcutta-like poverty,” he said.
General Assistance, a program that serves mostly single adults, has emerged as a major issue in the debate over welfare reform.
As state and local governments struggle to comply with new federal requirements to move recipients from welfare to the work force, counties have become increasingly fearful that those who lose assistance and can’t find jobs will flood the General Assistance rolls.
Wilson’s proposal to give counties the option to eliminate General Assistance was part of his welfare reform proposals unveiled last month.
Recently, nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill argued that a state takeover would allow more uniform benefits--monthly assistance payments range now from $175 to $345 a month depending on the county--and give the poorest of the poor a limited safety net.
Welfare legislation being carried for the counties by Sen. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) also calls for a state takeover of the program.
Lockyer’s decision to embrace the proposal increases its likelihood of passage in the Legislature and ensures that it will be one of the critical issues in the final negotiations between the Republican governor and Democratic legislative leaders.
“General Assistance must be a part of any welfare redesign in California, and we are ecstatic over the fact that the leadership has recognized the importance of this issue,” said Margaret Pena, legislative representative of the California State Assn. of Counties.
Lockyer proposed that the state finance the takeover of General Assistance by abandoning state plans to pay for a greater share of local court costs in the future. Both would cost the state about $300 million a year.
He said the state cannot afford to finance both and the more logical one for it to take over is General Assistance.
To make it easier for Wilson to accept his proposal on General Assistance, Lockyer said he has surrendered on another issue dear to the governor.
He said he has dropped his insistence that about 22,000 court employees be granted certain collective bargaining rights enjoyed by other public employees.
Wilson steadfastly opposed signing a court funding bill last year that contained collective bargaining amendments sponsored by Lockyer.
The bill died but now local courts, including those in Los Angeles and Orange counties, face the threat of running out of money soon and shutting down.
“He won’t sign a collective bargaining bill,” Lockyer said. “I’m convinced he is not going to change his view.”
Rather than continue the fight and potentially paralyze the civil and criminal court system with a shutdown, Lockyer said he is “acceding to the governor’s position.” He said he will drop the disputed collective bargaining amendments and will support a $292-million funding bill to keep the courts operating for the rest of the fiscal year.
“I have a higher responsibility to keep the courts open than I do to fighting for collective bargaining rights of 22,000 employees,” said Lockyer, a potential candidate for attorney general next year.
Meanwhile, Wilson press secretary Sean Walsh said late Wednesday: “We are surprised by Lockyer’s statement that he is withdrawing support for the state’s assumption of long-term trial court funding.” He characterized Lockyer’s comment on Wilson’s position on collective bargaining for court employees as “premature and inaccurate.”
Lockyer acknowledged that on perhaps the most volatile issue facing legislators this year--welfare reform--Democrats are so divided philosophically that they have no unified front or “game book” at this point.
“We’re foundering around. There are so many voices and complications,” he said.
For Democrats to step forward and propose that taxpayers statewide take over the local General Assistance costs “may be the welfare fight that is the best, the highest ground that we can take,” he said.