Lawmakers OK billions in program cuts in California budget
Reporting from Sacramento -- State lawmakers Wednesday approved billions of dollars in cuts to welfare, medical programs for the poor and in-home care for the elderly and frail, among other services, moving forward key pieces of Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget reduction package.
They also voted to sharply reduce services for the developmentally disabled and shifted hundreds of millions of dollars away from mental health and early childhood programs to use instead to reduce the deficit.
The cuts would cover only part of the state’s roughly $26-billion shortfall. But legislative leaders pushed ahead on the budget actions for which there was bipartisan support as they and the governor continued to lobby for votes for the more contentious provisions of Brown’s plan. They are still scrambling to secure GOP support for a ballot measure that would ask voters to extend billions of dollars in temporary tax increases.
Brown needs at least four Republicans, two each in the Assembly and Senate, to place the tax question before voters in a June special election.
As lawmakers debated into the night Wednesday, some warned that the reductions they were enacting would dramatically reshape California government.
“The guillotine is coming,” Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) said to no one in particular as he strode across the Assembly floor shortly before the voting began.
Lawmakers did not approve an official budget for fiscal 2011-12 but instead signed off on accompanying legislation necessary to enact the cuts. All told, legislators endorsed eight bills in a 20-piece budget package, cutting a projected $7.4 billion from the budget. More votes on some of the thorniest remaining issues could come as early as Thursday, including the main budget bill and taxes.
Brown’s push to eliminate the state’s network of redevelopment agencies fell one vote shy of passage in the Assembly but may be revisited as early as Thursday. He expressed frustration at the refusal of Republicans to support his entire budget package.
“There’s a certain amount of magical thinking that you don’t need cuts and you don’t need taxes,” he said.
State budgets are typically due in June for a fiscal year that begins July 1. But with temporary taxes set to expire by July, Brown has pressed for faster action in order to hold an election on renewing them before the expiration. A Field Poll released Wednesday underscored the stakes for Brown: Voter support drops precipitously if the public believes they are being asked to raise, rather than extend, higher taxes.
As votes were being cast in chambers, Brown decamped to the office of Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) to twist arms. He called reluctant Assembly members into private meetings, one by one, to press them to abolish redevelopment agencies. If Brown’s redevelopment proposal passes, it is projected to generate as much as $1.7 billion to balance the budget.
The elimination would dismantle a network of more than 400 redevelopment agencies across the state that are charged with spending billions in property taxes to improve blighted neighborhoods. Critics say some of those funds have been misspent and could be better used during the state’s fiscal crisis.
“In order to mend it, we’ve got to end it,” Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Bob Blumenfield (D-Woodland Hills) said. Democrats have suggested that redevelopment could be renewed as a government program at the local level.
Brown’s toughest task, however, remains finding four Republicans to support a ballot measure asking voters to extend taxes. He has bargained extensively with a group of five GOP senators that have expressed a willingness to part with their colleagues’ anti-tax orthodoxy, thus far to no avail. They are demanding that he and Democrats agree to some combination of concessions on government worker pensions, a strict spending cap etched in the Constitution, a rewrite of environmental law and an overhaul of the tax code.
Because that has not yet happened, some Republicans dismissed Wednesday’s action as nothing more than a political “drill.”
“We’ve failed miserably to develop a bipartisan product in this Legislature,” said Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries (R-Lake Elsinore).
Although most legislation passed with bipartisan support in the Senate, in the Assembly few lines were crossed, even when Republicans expressed support for the action up for vote.
Assemblyman Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber), for instance, made a speech criticizing the excesses of redevelopment agencies. Moments later, he skipped the vote to eliminate them.
“You can’t be against giving people the right to extend taxes and be against cuts,” said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). “There might as well be an empty seat.”
Spending reductions approved Wednesday would cut healthcare services available to the poor, charge them more to see a physician and pay health providers who treat Medi-Cal patients less. Some senior centers would probably close, and spending on in-home care for the elderly, blind and disabled would be reduced. Funds earmarked by voters for mental health and early childhood programs would be redirected for deficit reduction.
“These are cuts that affect virtually every aspect of life in California,” Pérez said.
But even the impact was cause for further disagreement. Democrats said the cutbacks total $7.4 billion in reduced spending. Republicans said the cuts pencil out to far less and targeted the wrong parts of government.
“It focuses reductions on community services rather than overhead and bureaucracy,” said Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar), vice chairman of the budget panel.
Times staff writers Michael Mishak and Anthony York contributed to this report.
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