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Democrats Propose Welfare Package

Aid: Plan calls for state to help legal immigrants whose benefits will be cut off under new U.S. rules.


SACRAMENTO — Democratic leaders, insisting that California cannot abandon its poor and elderly legal immigrants, proposed Thursday that the state replace the federal benefits that will be taken away from thousands of older noncitizens under a new national welfare law.

The proposal, costing about $274 million over the next two years, called for the state to begin providing cash assistance to elderly immigrants in the fall when the federal law mandates their cutoff from Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the program that provides aid to the blind, aged and disabled.

It was part of a wide-ranging welfare-to-work plan unveiled by Democratic leaders during an early morning news conference led by Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) and Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno).

Under increasing pressure to put forth their own plan to implement the federal law, the Democrats outlined a proposal that strongly emphasizes moving recipients into the work force but would allow them to receive assistance much longer than an earlier proposal by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.

Wilson immediately labeled certain aspects of the plan as "disturbing" and said he was concerned that the Democratic program was too expensive and that in future years "the costs would increase by billions and billions more."

In a statement, Wilson referred to portions that permitted recipients to stay on aid for longer periods than his proposal. "They [Democrats] still do not perceive the need for realistic time limits as incentives for people who are capable of working," the governor said.

He said the Democrats also appeared to favor "prolonged job training," an approach that he said had been flatly rejected by a team of employers appointed to examine the availability of jobs in California for welfare recipients.

But Wilson said the Democrats appeared to be in sync with his plan on other issues, including their proposals for providing counties with more flexibility to design their own welfare programs and for moving recipients into jobs.

"It appears that the Democrats have finally come to the conclusion that we can move significant numbers of individuals into jobs quickly," he said, "and that the dignity of a job--any job--is better than the current system of warehousing dependency."

Less conciliatory was Assembly Minority Leader Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), who mocked the Democratic proposals, saying "they have the nerve to call it a welfare-to-work plan, yet there is nothing new in their plan to encourage work--just vague assurances of job creation efforts and millions of dollars more for the kind of job training we already provide."

But the plan won praise from Margaret Pena, a lobbyist for the California State Assn. of Counties, who said that it adopted many of the ideas suggested by the counties and "puts us well on our way toward a bipartisan agreement."

Democrats acknowledged that their plan would be more expensive than Wilson's by $849 million over the next two years, but they said that nearly all the additional costs except the $274 million for immigrants would be absorbed by a federal block grant. Wilson's plan called for $500 million from the federal grant to be diverted to other, non-welfare programs.

Lockyer said new budget estimates would also show that California was collecting more revenue than had been anticipated and that welfare costs had been steadily declining as more people left the rolls. New estimates, issued by the legislative analyst's office, showed an additional $2 billion in revenue for the next fiscal year.

Bustamante said Democrats had listened to hours of public testimony and closely examined welfare plans in other states such as New York, Michigan and Wisconsin before settling on a proposal that they believed would divert as many recipients into jobs as possible, provide protection for children and the disabled, and ease the transition from welfare to work.

"Diversion, transition, protection: When you tone down the rhetoric, and take away the politics, that's what welfare reform should be about," he said. "That's a framework that makes sense."

The diversion idea, which is also part of Wilson's program, would allow counties to provide upfront emergency cash assistance to families that faced a temporary crisis, such as the breakdown of an automobile, that could cause the parents to lose their jobs and go on aid.

If families actually go on assistance, they would spend the first three months under the Democratic plan in an intensive job search--an attempt to move them quickly into employment and off welfare.

"We know that 25% of recipients leave welfare within the first six months," said Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), one of the co-chairs of a welfare conference committee. "Through these two diversion efforts many recipients will avoid being on aid any length of time."

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