Spending Cuts Offered, but Just How Big?

Times Staff Writers

This was supposed to be the easy part: Democrats and Republicans alike agreed on the need to cut billions of dollars immediately from California's budget.

But the bickering began as soon as the Assembly Budget Committee took up a package of proposed trims Thursday. In the end, the two sides saw the problem so differently that even after they voted, Republican and Democratic committee members couldn't agree on what they'd done.

Democrats insisted the committee had cut $12.5 billion from the budget, the same amount requested by Gov. Gray Davis. Republicans, accusing Democrats of shifty math, counted less than $3 billion in cuts.

And Davis, worried about how it all will play on Wall Street, criticized both sides for avoiding the problem.

"We are facing an unprecedented problem, and we won't solve it by nibbling around the edges," Davis said. "We need to bite the bullet now. It's the only way we can avoid worse pain down the road and maintain the state's credit rating."

Representatives from the governor's office will be meeting with credit rating agencies Feb. 6 in New York and are eager to show progress in addressing California's budget crisis.

The discrepancy in the Budget Committee's accounting was due in part to the Democrats' projection of how cuts made this year will continue to save money in the 2003-04 budget. Republicans said that the committee voted on reductions only in the current year budget, and that it was wrong to assume future savings.

Assembly Democrats also factored in roughly $4 billion they say could be achieved through their proposal to increase the car tax, which the full Assembly will vote on next week. Republicans have threatened to file a lawsuit to stop a car tax hike from taking effect.

Regardless of how the numbers are counted, the Democrats balked at some of the major cuts proposed by Davis.

They refused to pass changes in Medi-Cal eligibility rules and provider rates that could effectively take away health insurance from hundreds of thousands of impoverished Californians.

They also did not approve taking away dental care, chiropractic care and other "optional" medical benefits from the poor, as well as grabbing unused low-income housing funds from cities and counties.

Assembly Budget Committee Chairwoman Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach) said the measures approved by her committee reflect "a balance of both tough cuts and responsible revenue increases."

The full Assembly will consider the cuts next week, and the Senate will consider a similar plan.

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