State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), center,… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)
Reporting from Sacramento — Lawmakers on a key state budget panel Wednesday took their first steps, albeit gingerly, to trim government spending, agreeing to charge the poor more for medical care, pay less to the physicians who tend to them and reduce what taxpayers spend on children's eye care, among other cuts.
The action in the Senate Budget Committee represented the first substantive budget votes since Gov. Jerry Brown proposed an austere spending plan a month ago. It signaled a willingness among Democrats, who hold majorities in both houses, to embrace at least some painful reductions in social services to balance California's red-ink-stained books.
Brown, a Democrat, has called on the Legislature to approve $12 billion in budget cuts before a proposed ballot measure would go before voters in June asking them to extend sales, income and car tax hikes for five years.
On Wednesday, the committee approved increases in the price of prescription drugs and medical, dental and hospital care for Medi-Cal patients, to save $580 million. Health workers and facilities that care for the poor, meanwhile, would be paid 10% less, saving roughly $700 million.
No expense was too small for the chopping block. A proposal to eliminate $32 million in subsidies for county fairs passed. And a $2.2-million reduction — representing less than .01% of the deficit — was approved with the proposed elimination of Medi-Cal coverage for over-the-counter cold medicines.
Partisan tempers slowed Wednesday's hearing, as Republicans groused over Democrats' rejection of some of Brown's most severe cutbacks. Pushed aside were proposals to place a strict cap on the number of prescription drugs Medi-Cal patients can receive, how many times they can see a doctor and how much can be spent on equipment such as wheelchairs and catheters.
Committee Chairman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) suggested such cuts would "make us a death panel." He pledged to meet Brown's reduction target while "trying to soften some of the hardest edges" in the plan.
Republicans were wary. Sen. Bob Huff of Diamond Bar, the panel's ranking Republican, said the Democrats' rejection of some cuts moved in the "opposite direction" of what is necessary and would make it harder for Brown to persuade Republicans to place the tax question before voters. Brown needs at least four GOP votes to do so.
Meanwhile on Wednesday, program advocates opened a new front in their assault on Brown's budget: A coalition of seniors' groups unveiled a television ad denouncing the governor's plan to shutter health centers that serve 27,000 elderly and frail residents.
"Families will be fractured," the spot's narrator says, as an old woman is carted off to a nursing home.
Leno said Democrats will seek to "redesign" that program rather than eliminate it, as Brown has proposed.
More hearings are scheduled in coming days as legislators race to meet a March budget deadline imposed by Brown.