County Presses the Flesh and Passes the Hat
Convinced that their ongoing battle to solve Los Angeles County’s fiscal crisis shouldn’t be fought alone, a small army of county officials flew to the capital this week in search of federal help.
Their enemy, a budget shortfall that could reach $1.1 billion in five years, is so formidable that four of the five county supervisors, along with Sheriff Lee Baca, the director of the county’s health system and at least 15 staff members, made the county’s annual springtime lobbying trip.
The group, including Supervisors Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Mike Antonovich, Zev Yaroslavsky and Don Knabe, spent the bulk of two days this week padding from one congressional office to another with a wish list of changes to federal law.
With the White House and Congress in Republican hands and no obvious political motivation to help heavily Democratic Los Angeles County, the prospects for immediate assistance may be dim.
But the trip, participants said, was much more than a one-sided passing of the hat.
They described it as equal parts political exercise, social function and educational outing.
Burke, a former congresswoman who has been on both sides of the county’s lobbying efforts, said it is hard to overstate the importance of the process.
Because the county’s supervisorial districts are so large, each encompassing three or four congressional districts, Burke said it is critical that the supervisors their respects to each member of the county’s congressional delegation in person.
“If we don’t pay particular attention to them, then maybe someone gets the sense we’re overlooking them,” she said.
The meetings began with a Wednesday breakfast session at which supervisors and Washington-based lobbyists for the county agreed on seven priorities.
* Allow money saved by closing and downsizing county hospitals to be reinvested in outpatient medical care.
* Restore Medicaid funding cuts that have cost the county $32 million this year.
* Increase the county’s share of homeland security funding.
* Relax proposed federal work requirements for welfare recipients that could cost the county $257 million.
* Obtain an extension of a proposed federal rule that would force the county to replace its entire emergency communications system at a cost of $400 million.
* Maintain a federal program targeted for elimination that reimburses the county’s cost of incarcerating illegal immigrants.
* Increase the county’s share of federal transportation money.
The county’s 17-member congressional delegation has the potential to form a sizable bloc of votes on any of those issues, but it also made for a hectic schedule for the county officials, who had meetings every half-hour.
There was a routine quality to the meetings, as the officials exchanged pleasantries, laid out their concerns, took suggestions and listened to issues of particular concern to each representative.
The insider’s perspective that the House members possess was often evident in their advice.
“That’s a tough one,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) said when asked for his help on increasing the county’s share of money for providing medical care to the uninsured.
Reminding county officials that they already had the support of most congressional members representing urban areas, he suggested that they try marshaling support from the state’s suburban and agricultural areas.
“If we can’t get all our [state congressional members] on board, we’re in trouble,” he said.
Although there was little in the way of visible decision-making, participants said the true value of the meetings is in the relationships they establish.
“A lot of this work is preparatory, and it’s not very glamorous but it’s very necessary,” said Burt Margolin, a former Los Angeles County health czar and now the county’s chief legislative strategist.
“Human nature is to pick up the phone and call someone when you need something. But if you don’t think it’s important enough to look someone in the eye and ask for help, there’s always a question about how important it really is.”
Some members of the county group also met with Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California.
Boxer, who met with the officials Thursday in an ornately decorated Capitol meeting room where presidents sign international treaties, recommended that they seek ways to have more federal support for counties included in President Bush’s tax cut bill, which will double as an economic stimulus package.
Find a way “to squeeze as much relief for counties and states into the president’s tax bill” as possible, “because it’s the only thing with legs,” said Boxer, a former Marin County supervisor.
With the unrelenting pace, one participant who wore a pedometer said he logged more than four miles of walking in a day.
The need for endurance was underscored Wednesday as Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) told a longish story about a portrait hanging on a wall of his Washington office.
It wasn’t yet noon, and already the county group was in its sixth meeting of the day.
But Cox heads a Homeland Security Committee that could influence how millions of federal dollars are distributed, so if he had a mind to talk art, then art it was.
As Cox held forth on the portrait -- of a military aide to President Taft who died aboard the doomed Titanic -- county lobbyist Del Smith whispered an observation born of decades in the business.
“This,” Smith said, “is how laws get made.”