State Budget Writers Enter Pay Dispute

TIMES STAFF WRITER

State legislators are attempting to intervene in a Los Angeles County labor dispute by threatening to withhold $50 million for children's services and the mentally ill unless nearly 75,000 home care workers are given a raise.

The controversial proposal represents an attempt by Sacramento politicians to leverage the county Board of Supervisors on behalf of organized labor. It was slipped into a lower house version of the state's next budget by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, a Los Angeles Democrat and former county labor leader.

Under the proposal, sales- and use-tax revenue and vehicle license fees collected by the state and distributed to Los Angeles County would be reduced by $50 million in the 2001-02 fiscal year. The sum represents about 15% of the money the county expects to receive from those sources.

The funding would be restored if the county agrees to raise wages paid to Los Angeles home care workers, who earn $6.75 per hour, to $8.50 per hour.

The workers--who help feed, clothe and bathe elderly and disabled people--are paid from a combination of federal, state and county sources. Cedillo wants the county to join the state in bolstering the wages paid to these care providers.

The wage proposal is included in a more than 400-page agenda for a budget conference committee that is set to begin meeting Sunday in Sacramento. The committee is charged with drafting the next state budget and will decide whether to include the provision in the final document.

Los Angeles County officials say the raise would cost coffers--already under pressure from rising energy costs--more than $40 million. They also contend that the proposal is complicating their efforts to fashion the county's next spending plan.

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky warned that the state could be setting a dangerous precedent.

"Funds withheld for that purpose will come at the expense of kids and the mentally ill," Yaroslavsky said. "I don't think that's what state legislators want to do."

The pay dispute, he added, is a matter that should be settled between the workers and the county.

David Janssen, the county's chief administrative officer, said he objects to the legislators' tactics, regardless of the reason.

"It's difficult enough to balance a budget without resources being taken away or redirected," Janssen said.

Advocates for the workers note that the services they provide help save the state and county--the former more than the latter--millions of dollars by enabling the indigent to live at home and avoid entering nursing homes or other costly facilities at government expense.

"Home care workers are very critical," Cedillo said. "We want to encourage the county to . . . move them toward a livable wage."

Cedillo said he hopes county officials and the labor representatives can reach a resolution on the issue.

Tyrone Freeman, general manager of Service Employees International Union, Local 434B, which represents the workers, said his review of the county's proposed budget has led him to conclude that the county has more than enough money to give the home care workers raises without cutting programs.

"There is plenty of money for the county to give the raises," Freeman said. "For the county to tie those most important programs to the $50 million is not only untruthful but unjust."

The proposal represents the latest salvo in the ongoing dispute between state and county officials who blame each other for failing to pay a fair share of wages earned by Los Angeles home care workers. Their pay has lagged behind wages earned by counterparts in other areas of the state.

County officials contend that the state should bear the brunt of the cost of raises because of the amount of money the program saves the state. State officials want the county to help cover the increases proposed by Gov. Gray Davis, who courted the home care workers during his 1998 campaign.

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