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State Is Abandoning Its Children, Advocacy Group Says : Public services: Report says funds for health, welfare and education are undergoing 'a slow strangulation.' It is critical of Wilson Administration, but governor dismisses the charges as election-year politicking.

March 08, 1994|MARK GLADSTONE and DANIEL M. WEINTRAUB | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — State government, from Gov. Pete Wilson on down, is abdicating its responsibility to California's 9 million children, especially the 2.3 million poor children who increasingly rely on public services, according to an advocacy group.

In a comprehensive report issued Monday, the nonprofit Children's Advocacy Institute maintained that when the state suffers an earthquake or other major natural disaster, officials rush to provide billions of dollars in relief.

Lacking a similar calamity to galvanize the state's political leadership, children are experiencing a "slow strangulation" of funds for health, welfare and education.

"Over the past four years, adjusted state general fund spending for children in California has declined in an amount unprecedented in the nation's history," said the authors of the 206-page report at a capital news conference.

The San Diego-based institute, founded in 1989 and affiliated with the University of San Diego School of Law, billed its critique as the first children's budget analysis undertaken in the nation. The authors hope to use it to rally other children's rights groups, lobby lawmakers and appeal to policy-makers to upgrade the importance of children's issues in the capital.

But Wilson challenged the findings and the credibility of one of its chief authors, saying that the criticisms of his Administration amounted to no more than election-year politics.

At issue is what kind of financial help the state should provide for children, especially for those who are hungry and homeless.

The report paints a bleak picture of declining public spending over the past five budget years, including Wilson's proposed spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The state has established a minimum safety net for children but "we're violating that," said Robert C. Fellmeth, executive director of the institute and a co-author of the report. To make their case, the authors cited a 9.2% drop in per-student education spending, a 35% decrease in per-person welfare spending and a 7.5% dip in funds to inspect 64,000 licensed day care centers. The study based its analysis on figures adjusted for inflation and population growth.

As a consequence of budget cuts, Fellmeth predicted that the state in the next fiscal year will lose at least $2 billion in federal matching funds for a variety of children's programs, including nutrition and health.

Wilson said he won enactment of a slate of so-called preventive programs for children and had asked for greater funding for some of them but had been turned down by the Legislature.

"They are either abysmally ignorant of what this Administration and this Legislature have done in the most trying economic times in our history, or else they are seeking to mislead people," Wilson said.

Wilson then singled out Fellmeth, saying he would be delighted to debate the law professor, whom he branded as "a strong partisan liberal Democrat."

Describing himself as a registered Republican, Fellmeth said Wilson's record disqualifies him from calling himself "a children's governor."

Fellmeth said the report was not a partisan attack, adding that he believes "the Democrats in the Legislature have been just as bad as Wilson."

Karin Caves, spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), said the Legislature has "made big steps forward" to crack down on child molesters, improve child custody laws and boost child support collections.

She acknowledged that more needs to be done.

"One of the clearest problems is that we are in the fourth year of a recession in California," she said, "and things are very tough and especially bad for the weakest and most vulnerable citizens, who are our children."

Gladstone reported from Sacramento and Weintraub from Los Angeles.

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