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State Budget Hits a Snag: Immigration

GOP legislators vow to block the Democratic plan as long as it includes expansion of public healthcare for children here illegally.

June 15, 2006|Evan Halper | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The Legislature is expected to once again blow its deadline for passing a state budget today as Republican lawmakers vow to block any spending plan that expands state-funded healthcare for children in the U.S. illegally.

In a year when an uptick in the economy has left the state flush with billions of dollars in unanticipated cash and a spirit of bipartisan cooperation has emerged in the Capitol, lawmakers at one time hoped that they could meet their legislative deadline for the first time since 1986.

Then the immigration debate crept into budget negotiations. Democrats are pushing to make about 200,000 additional children from low-income households -- including those in the country illegally -- eligible for subsidized healthcare. That has prompted Republicans to rally against the plan worked out in a Democrat-dominated joint budget committee.

"It is reprehensible to offer services to individuals who come to California illegally" when there are legal residents who don't have health insurance, Senate Budget Committee Vice Chairman Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta) said after the joint legislative committee approved the plan over the weekend. "This proposal will continue to exacerbate the illegal immigration problem."

Even as Assembly Republican Leader George Plescia of San Diego tried to shift the focus of GOP opposition elsewhere -- saying his caucus' biggest concern was with the Democratic plan for paying down debt -- he acknowledged that the healthcare proposal was a deal breaker.

"It is a big priority for us to not expand or create new programs, especially for those that are here illegally," Plescia said.

The Democrats' plan would carry a hefty price tag: more than $300 million a year by the time it is fully in place in fiscal 2008-09. Nearly 90% of that would be spent on children who are here illegally and not covered by the federal government. The money to pay for the healthcare could come from the proposal -- which will appear before voters in November -- to increase cigarette taxes $2.37 a pack.

The budget standoff prompted Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) to hold a news conference Wednesday denouncing Plescia's caucus.

"They're looking for something not to like in the budget," Nunez said. "So we're going to use the immigration issue, which is a hot topic of debate in a political year, to wave the flag of 'This is for the illegals.' And maybe it helps you during the campaign.

"As a consequence, we're not going to have a budget on Thursday," he said.

The June 15 deadline has become largely ceremonial. Lawmakers have long been more focused on getting a spending plan in place by the July 1 start of the fiscal year, when state payments to local governments, schools, universities and vendors could be interrupted.

But they had thought they might be able to boost their sagging approval ratings by meeting the legislative deadline for the first time in two decades.

Passage of a budget requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature. Democrats cannot move a spending plan to the governor's desk unless it has the votes of at least six Republicans in the Assembly and two in the Senate.

Noticeably absent from the back-and-forth Wednesday was Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who in May had proposed a more scaled-back plan to increase the number of children enrolled in state healthcare programs, including those here illegally.

California Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer said the governor opposes the Democratic plan, not because of the illegal immigration issue but out of concern that it costs too much.

Palmer noted that there are already about 400,000 children -- both legal residents and undocumented immigrants -- who are eligible for subsidized healthcare through the Medi-Cal and Healthy Families programs but are not enrolled.

"Before we go to expanding the programs, let's catch all the already eligible kids we haven't caught," he said.

Plescia, meanwhile, said his caucus also had other problems with the budget plan pending in the Legislature. He said there is no guarantee that the $1 billion that Democrats want to set aside to pay off debt will be used for that purpose. Plescia said Democrats could change their mind next year, raid the account and use the money to expand programs.

"Their proposal for paying down debt is to stick it in a pot and set it aside," he said. "Let's pay it now."

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\o7Times staff writer Nancy Vogel contributed to this report.

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