Lawmakers have closed almost half of California's $26.6-billion budget gap through deep cuts in state programs and services, but some of that progress may be short-lived. A lawsuit by three county agencies challenges the Legislature's decision to take $1 billion from preschool programs and spend it on healthcare for poor children.
The agencies argue that the transfer violates Proposition 10, the 1998 ballot measure that taxed tobacco products to raise money specifically for early childhood development. They may well prevail — much depends on how the courts read the proposition. But the agencies' lawsuit is a good illustration of how ballot-box budgeting makes it harder for lawmakers to set priorities and decide how best to meet their constituents' many needs.
The "First 5" childcare and preschool programs funded by Proposition 10 should be one of the state's top investments, given how much of a child's future is determined by his or her first five years. But providing healthcare to those same children is important too. And although First 5 officials disagree, the state Department of Finance contends that about $2 billion in Proposition 10 funds collected by the California Children and Families Commission and corresponding county agencies is sitting idle. That's one of the main reasons lawmakers agreed to Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to shift $1 billion from First 5 programs to a new fund dedicated to healthcare for low-income children no older than 5.