SACRAMENTO — Responding to complaints that welfare reform will bankrupt local governments, Gov. Pete Wilson will propose today that the state rescind a decades-old mandate that requires California's counties to act as the safety net of last resort for the poor.
If approved by the Legislature, the proposal would clear the way for counties to eliminate or reduce the benefits provided by General Assistance, the program that provides small cash payments to more than 150,000 poor adults who do not qualify for other welfare grants. Half of the recipients live in Los Angeles County.
The get-tough program is one piece of a mammoth plan to restructure welfare in California that the governor will present today as he unveils a $63-billion-plus budget to finance state programs in the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Health and Welfare Secretary Sandra Smoley confirmed Wednesday that the proposal to lift the mandate would be part of the governor's budget but declined to provide details.
"Counties should be relieved of the legal requirement to provide cash grants for general assistance," she said.
Wilson gave legislators an overview of his welfare proposals in his State of the State address Tuesday, and administration officials began to reveal other details--including a proposal to cut new recipients from aid after a year if they fail to find work.
The proposals are part of ongoing efforts by the Wilson administration in the last few years to shrink welfare benefits in California and put tighter restrictions on recipients. The latest proposals are the most far-reaching yet.
Democratic leaders in the Legislature labeled many of the Republican governor's proposals punitive, speculated that Wilson was seeking to appeal to the conservative wing of the state GOP, and predicted that the plan would have difficulty passing the two Democrat-controlled houses.
Sen. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), who heads the Senate budget panel that will consider welfare issues, said the elimination of the General Assistance mandate is a good idea but only if the state intends to take over responsibility for the program.
Otherwise, Thompson said, the governor "is not doing away with the problem; just the money to address the problem."
If counties are allowed to drop General Assistance, he said he could foresee a welfare checkerboard developing in California, in which some local governments would retain the program while others would eliminate it.
"You would have people in need of help moving from the counties that have eliminated the program to the counties that have not," he said.
Assemblyman Martin Gallegos (D-Baldwin Park) said it would be deplorable for the Legislature to strike down the mandate without providing for "some kind of statewide safety net."
But as a preview of how contentious the welfare issue may become, Wilson said during a news conference in Los Angeles that while he hoped to avoid a fight with the Legislature, he would not rule out the possibility of going to voters with some of his proposals.
"If we cannot achieve what we need to in the Legislature, the last resort is to go to the ballot," he said.
Wilson tried that route in 1992 with a ballot initiative that cut welfare grants up to 25% and sharply limited eligibility, among other changes. It was defeated.
As for criticism of his proposals, Wilson insisted that they are not overly harsh. "Well, they are not, very clearly. It is no kindness to perpetuate a system that has been responsible for so much unhappiness.
"It has been an impetus to young girls to get pregnant deliberately because they thought . . . they could rely on the welfare system to take care of them and their child. That is not fair to them. It is monstrously unfair to the child. And it really isn't fair to society."
Many California counties have long sought to eliminate the safety net mandate, contending that it imposes huge costs on local government that are not reimbursed by the state.
Their efforts have intensified with the passage last summer of the federal overhaul of welfare. The counties predict that the law will flood General Assistance programs with new recipients as legal immigrants and other welfare recipients lose Supplemental Security Income and other sources of aid.
Margaret Pena, a lobbyist for the California State Assn. of Counties, said that while counties welcome the recognition that the mandate has been a financial burden for them, its mere elimination will not make the problem go away.
"The people and their needs will still be there," she said, "and one way or another we will see them in our system whether it's in county hospitals, clinics, soup kitchens, homeless shelters or on the streets. The people will surface one way or another."
Frank Mecca, a lobbyist for the County Welfare Directors Assn. of California, said that even with the elimination of the mandate, counties would still have to grapple with the problems of the poor.