Facing the worst budget crisis in a decade, two Central Valley lawmakers have joined forces to revive a rural caucus in the state Legislature that has lain dormant for years.
Assemblyman David Cogdill (R-Modesto) and Sen. Chuck Poochigian (R-Fresno) are hoping to gather enough bipartisan and bicameral support to protect the state's rural pockets from the most brutal cuts, while rallying support for bills that champion rural interests.
The bulk of California's land mass is rural, but only about 6% of the state's population resides in those vast spaces. That means lawmakers from the hinterlands can find it difficult getting their points across.
The caucus, rural advocates say, could help lawmakers set an agenda on issues from health care to water policy. It would join a list that now includes the Republican, Democratic, Latino, African American and women's caucuses. There's even a smart-growth caucus.
"This is a place that runs on the strength of numbers," Cogdill said Tuesday from Sacramento. "Any time you've got a group of people united on an issue it's going to help. That's the goal."
Among the pressing problems posed by Gov. Gray Davis' budget proposal, Cogdill said, are cuts in Medi-Cal reimbursements.
In the most rural pockets of his district, 80% to 90% of people receive Medi-Cal, so physicians can't diversify their patient load the way many of their urban counterparts can, he said.
A pullout by many health maintenance organizations and a shortage of health-care professionals have also plagued rural areas. With the forceful backing and improved communication of a caucus, rural districts may be able to jointly purchase basic and prescription drug insurance, or create incentives to lure health-care professionals to rural areas, said Lauri Paoli, executive director of the California State Rural Health Assn.
"This couldn't have happened at a more critical time," Paoli said. "We're very excited about it."
Other rural advocates also applauded the move.
"There's a general feeling in rural counties that up through the 1970s there was a more receptive voice in the Legislature than there appears to be today, so we're really encouraged by the effort," said Brent Harrington, chief executive of the Regional Council on Rural Counties.
The organization, with 29 member counties, represents rural perspectives in the state capital. One issue that looms large is water, which comes from rural parts of the state but has increasingly been diverted to urban areas. (Imperial County, at the center of the largest such water fight, recently joined the organization.)
A bipartisan caucus could help bring rural concerns to the forefront and lobby more aggressively to win and keep funding.
For example, a bill promoted by Harrington's organization and signed into law last year calls for more funding for security measures at rural airports, which were largely ignored in the post-Sept. 11 debate. But the governor's current budget proposal shaves away the funding, Harrington said.
The Legislature had a rural caucus for years. But it petered out after its most recent chairman, Mike Thompson, was elected to Congress in 1998.
Rural advocates often complain of policies skewed to cities, and Cogdill said he had been mulling the revival of a caucus since he won his seat more than two years ago.
He and Poochigian announced their plans last Wednesday and sent invitations Friday to about a third of the state's legislators, all of whom represent rural areas.
While formal responses have not yet flowed in, Cogdill said his office has received calls from a handful of lawmakers interested in joining, including Assemblywoman Barbara Matthews (D-Stockton).
The group hopes to meet in early February to chart a course and decide whether to assess membership fees, which could be used to hire at least one staffer.
Assemblyman Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City) participated in the last rural caucus and found it disappointing. Compelling members to contribute could help ensure better attendance, said Leslie, who is willing to give it a try.
"I think it's valuable to have it," he said. "I think, however, for it to work, it should have a permanent staff person who really digs into the bills that affect rural government."