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State Budget Woes May Slice Into Lawmakers' Pork

Finances: With a potential deficit of $14 billion looming, some pet projects could lose funding.


SACRAMENTO — California lawmakers may be forced to cut close to home as their leaders prepare to negotiate with the Davis administration on the state's potential $14-billion budget deficit.

Gov. Gray Davis is expected to call a second meeting of the Legislature's Republican and Democratic leaders, perhaps later this week, to discuss the state's budget problems. After a first meeting last month, legislative and finance staff members began looking for cuts in the current 2001-02 budget.

Among the candidates on the chopping block: pork, the juicy little projects championed by individual legislators to benefit their home districts or a pet cause.

Lawmakers have historically coveted these budgetary morsels for the evidence they provide of effectiveness in the Legislature, particularly during elections like those scheduled for next year.

Consequently, such items make up a small but politically important part of California's $103-billion spending plan. Because the definition of pork varies, so do estimates of how much is in the budget.

The spending plan Davis signed in July included $65.5 million in general funds for requests made by individual members, according to finance officials. Republicans, who are calling for Davis to rescind all pork projects, peg the amount at more than $100 million.

"The longer we delay, the more likely money will be spent, which is why we asked the governor to act and act quickly," said Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga.

Trims or delays in new programs and expansions of existing ones approved during the legislative session that ended in September also are being discussed at the staff level.

Senate Leader John Burton, the San Francisco Democrat, said if money appropriated for programs and projects has not already made its way into the expenditure pipeline, it may wind up being impounded.

The only cut that Davis has announced for the current fiscal year is the $150 million he ordered state agencies to trim from operating expenses and equipment purchases, which represents about a 10% reduction.

The state is expected to end the fiscal year with at least a $1.4-billion deficit, however, said Brad Williams, chief economist with the legislative analyst's office. He expects the shortfall to grow to $9.5 billion in the 2002-03 fiscal year if revenue collections continue at current levels.

Davis has said the deficit could hit $14 billion. The bleak outlook is sinking in around the Capitol.

Jim Keddy, executive director of the PICO California Project, a faith-based group that advocates for the poor, worries that an expansion of the Healthy Families program that provides health insurance to poor children may now be in jeopardy. It was expanded this year to cover certain parents at a cost of about $60 million in general funds, said Keddy, assuming that the state obtains federal approval.

"We're concerned whether the commitments that were made by the governor and the Legislature are going to hold firm given all the change that's been occurring," Keddy said.

Another new big-ticket budget item is the $200-million program championed by Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) to help bolster the state's lowest-performing schools. Steinberg said Davis administration officials have talked to him about the program's funding, but that he expects the money to come through.

"I recognize that everything is on the table here and that we have a very large challenge in front of us," Steinberg said.

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