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Davis' Budget Cut Plans to Be Considered

Legislature: Some Democratic lawmakers are expected to oppose efforts to trim programs that help the poor. Education funding is also an issue.

January 21, 2002|JULIE TAMAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — As lawmakers prepare to take up Gov. Gray Davis' plan to immediately trim $2.2 billion from the state budget, opposition is mounting against some of the proposals that would hit the poor the hardest.

Although most legislators realize they have to cut the state's current budget to balance the next one, some are questioning whether a handful of the more than 80 proposals outlined by Davis make sense.

Some Democratic lawmakers, for example, oppose scaling back a program that helps low-income Californians with their energy bills. They also do not want to delay plans to help poorly performing schools and provide health insurance for struggling parents.

Adopting the $2.2 billion in cuts is a key step in a larger effort by Davis to help close a $12.5-billion shortfall that is expected to materialize in the next 18 months.

Lawmakers are scheduled to take up the Davis proposals Tuesday during a joint budget committee hearing, setting the stage for subcommittee debates later this week and for consideration by the full Legislature perhaps by the end of the month.

Davis called the Legislature into a special session earlier this month to consider both the spending reductions and his economic stimulus plan.

The latter plan includes selling $678 million in bonds to finance construction, primarily at state colleges and universities, and to make newly increased unemployment insurance benefits retroactive to Sept. 11 to help California workers who lost their jobs as a result of the terrorist attacks.

It is the governor's cuts package, however, that will have the most direct and immediate effect on closing California's budget gap. Negotiations are expected to take place between the Davis administration and legislative leaders over a compromise package.

As an alternative, some Democratic lawmakers suggest trimming Davis programs that pay bonuses to teachers and schools for improving student performance. Davis' 2002-03 budget proposal, for example, includes $157 million for the governor's performance awards for schools that meet certain Academic Performance Index targets.

Sen. John Burton, the San Francisco Democrat who controls the state Senate, said he has never believed that the awards are the best way to spend public money. He said he is still gauging the effect of a Davis proposal to return to the general fund $53.7 million earmarked for a program to assist low-income Californians with their energy bills.

"To the extent there's money that doesn't need to be spent and can't be spent, that's one thing," Burton said. "But if there's money that is needed to protect low-income elderly people by keeping them warm in the winter months, we're not going to let that cut happen."

Other lawmakers are not comfortable with several of the $843 million in proposals to cut and delay education programs.

"Some of us are already developing alternative lists," said Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, a Los Angeles Democrat on the Assembly Education Committee. "We don't necessarily disagree with the $843 million, but we think there's a better way to get there."

Goldberg wants to redirect $50 million proposed by Davis to reward certificated staff working at low-performing schools to other education programs on the chopping block.

"I would take that $50 million in a red-hot minute," Goldberg said. For example, she said she would prefer to maintain $40 million to make school funding more equal.

Sen. John Vasconcellos, the Santa Clara Democrat who heads the Senate Education Committee, wants $30 million to $40 million kept in the budget so that planning can proceed on a program to shower the state's worst-performing schools with $200 million.

Davis proposed delaying the program's start date to July 1, which his administration contends will save $30 million to $50 million--roughly the amount Vasconcellos wants restored. Vasconcellos did not, however, suggest that other education programs be scaled back to restore the planning money.

"I would very much like to preserve some money so that the planning process could be finished by June 30 so that we can kick off the new school year with this program ready to go," Vasconcellos said. "California students are depending upon us to figure out a way to provide a lifeline to the kids at the bottom."

Some education leaders are siding with lawmakers.

Wayne Johnson, president of the powerful California Teachers Assn., said he would rather spend money on low-performing schools or improving funding equality among districts.

"We have always taken the position that we did not like the bonuses and performance award money, and we would rather see it spent almost any other way than that," Johnson said. "Philosophically it is not popular with our membership."

Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio disagreed with Johnson and said the governor would be extremely reluctant to have to negotiate the issue. The reward money, he added, has been one of Davis' signature programs.

"It's not wildly popular in the Legislature. It never has been," Maviglio said. "But I think it's been well received among rank-and-file teachers who have been rewarded for their outstanding work."

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