Democrats Rip GOP Plan on Budget Crisis

Times Staff Writer

Legislative Democrats declared Monday that a Republican plan to solve the budget crisis by slashing programs another 7% across the board could force the early release of 23,000 prisoners, close some of the state's prized universities and turn state-supported nursing home residents out on the street.

After commending their GOP colleagues for offering a budget-balancing plan of their own, Democrats led by Senate President Pro Tem John Burton set out to illustrate just how deeply the approach -- with no revenue from additional taxes -- would decimate government services.

"I don't necessarily think their plan is realistic as far as solving the problem," said Burton (D-San Francisco). He said making a 7% reduction "sounds like an easy shot, but it really isn't."

Republicans characterized as misleading a seven-page analysis Burton released Monday purporting to show how different services would suffer if cut.

"Their gig is to say that we are going to put the old people on the street, we are going to kill the children," said Senate Budget Committee Vice Chairman Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine). "I say let's just roll back to '98 and '99 when we were spending $25 billion less. Were people dying then? I don't think so. That's just scare tactics."

The debate over the Republican proposal intensified as the Assembly Budget Committee on Monday approved $3 billion in current-year cuts that were passed by the Senate last week. If the reductions win a vote of the full Assembly and are signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis, they would represent the first cuts made to close a budget gap estimated to be as much as $35 billion over the next 17 months.

While the budget plan offered in January by Davis would resolve the shortfall by combining about $17 billion in program reductions with $8.3 billion in tax increases, Republicans vowed to fight any plan that requires new taxes. Senate Republican leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga last week released the GOP plan, which calls for adding $5 billion more -- a total of $22 billion -- and borrowing billions more to push the rest of the shortfall into 2005.

Burton's analysis of that plan concludes that the Republican approach would force cuts in higher education that would be equivalent to eliminating all staff at Riverside Community College, Chaffey Community College, Cal State Long Beach and UC Davis.

Nearly 70,000 Californians would lose their nursing home care under the Republican plan, Burton said, and 23,190 inmates would need to be released a year early from state prisons.

Burton noted that some programs can't be cut any further than the governor has suggested because the law guarantees a certain minimum level of funding. That means other areas of state government would have to absorb cuts greater than 7%.

About $12.5 billion of state spending fits into a category that can't be cut, including debt on general obligation bonds, special education, state hospitals and basic welfare services, according to Democrats.

"It just really wouldn't work the way they talk about it, or work at all," Burton said. He added that absent the release of prisoners and a suspension of education funding increases guaranteed by Proposition 98 -- two things Republicans oppose -- the GOP plan would actually require a 16.4% across-the-board cut over what is in the Davis plan.

Republicans say that is a distortion. They argue, for example, that the Department of Corrections could indeed be cut by 7% through administrative belt-tightening, without releasing prisoners early.

"There is a lot of fat to be cut out of all departments," Ackerman said. "Seven percent is relatively minor when you look at something. You can do that in your business; you can do that in your home. It can be done."

Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, a nonprofit that researches how state budget proposals might affect the poor, agreed with Burton, and said several services would be crippled by a 7% cut. She cited hospitals as an example; the GOP proposal would force steep reimbursement rate cuts for MediCal patients.

"At some point there would be so few physicians willing to participate that the state would be exposed to litigation as to whether we have a functioning medical program," she said.

Many Democrats call even the cuts in the governor's proposal draconian. Assemblywoman Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) and Assemblywoman Wilma Chan (D-Alameda) largely ignored the GOP proposal and continued to rail on the Davis plan instead at a labor rally Monday.

Burton did point out a few elements of the Brulte plan that are attractive to Democrats, who do not have enough votes in the Legislature to pass a budget on their own. Among them are borrowing money to carry part of the deficit over to 2005, the rejection of a fee increase at community colleges, and paying off pension bonds more quickly than Davis has proposed.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, held a news conference urging the repeal of workers' compensation and other laws recently passed that they say have placed onerous requirements on businesses, forcing many to flee the state.

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