Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at a news conference in Sacramento after signing… (Bloomberg )
Reporting from Sacramento — Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law billions of dollars in budget cuts Thursday that will mean fewer government services, particularly for the old, the poor and the sick.
The governor signed the new laws to tackle $11.2 billion of the state's estimated $26-billion deficit, even as he scrambled to find Republican support for the other half of his budget plan: a ballot measure asking voters' blessing to renew expiring taxes. Time is running out to place such a measure on the June ballot, he said.
State officials will now begin notifying many Californians that their government benefits are to be cut within 90 days — at just about the start of the new budget year. Come July, welfare grants will be reduced by 8%, and parents will be kicked off the rolls after four years instead of the current five.
Assistance for the elderly and disabled, in their homes and at senior centers, will also be reduced. State-subsidized child care for 11- and 12-year-olds will be eliminated.
Brown sought to use the "painful" cuts he signed to make his case that Republicans should support the plan to ask voters to pay more taxes to bridge the remaining shortfall.
"It's going to be much, much worse if we cannot get the vote of the people and the tax extensions," Brown said.
Already, roughly $2 billion will be shifted away from voter-approved mental health and early childhood programs to reduce the deficit. Community college fees will rise from $26 to $36 per unit next fall. And funding for state university systems will be slashed by $1 billion.
"This is an order of magnitude tougher than the cuts that we've seen in recent years," said Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, a think tank that advocates for low-income families.
The package also includes billions in fund shifts, internal loans and other bookkeeping moves.
Some of the cutbacks, such as the $1.7 billion in reduced Medi-Cal spending, will require federal waivers. Administration officials expressed confidence that such waivers would be forthcoming. If they are, California would pay physicians and others who treat Medi-Cal patients less and force low-income residents to pay more for those services.
Many severe health and welfare cuts have been tied up by lawsuits in recent years. That appears less likely this time, program advocates said, because the latest cuts are tailored to pass legal muster.
Brown still has not inked an official budget for fiscal 2011-12. Parts of his spending blueprint remain in legislative limbo, including proposals to dissolve the state's redevelopment agencies, shift responsibility for some state programs to local governments and roll back corporate tax breaks worth nearly $2 billion.
Putting the tax question before voters has been the stickiest issue. Brown said any talk of taxes has thus far proved "too threatening and too anxiety-provoking and too career-ending" for Republicans to provide the four votes needed.
"I don't know how we get around that," he said Thursday.
The governor acknowledged exploring alternatives, such as qualifying a citizen initiative on taxes for the fall or using a legal loophole to place a measure on the June ballot without GOP assent. But he said he remained focused on negotiating with a handful of Republican legislators.
Talks in recent days have focused on putting a spending cap into California's constitution and a rollback of pension benefits for government employees, two of the items Republicans have requested in return for their support. In case those talks fail, two GOP activists filed paperwork Thursday to pursue ballot initiatives on pensions and a spending cap.
Still, some Republicans said they continued to negotiate in earnest.
"I think we're getting closer," said Sen. Tom Berryhill (R-Modesto), one of several GOP senators involved the negotiations. "That's my hope, my prayer."
Asked if an accord was close, Brown also suggested consulting a higher power: "Only the good Lord knows."