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California in retreat on social service spending

In his new budget, a frustrated Gov. Jerry Brown cuts a swath through California's renowned assistance programs.

January 07, 2012|By Michael J. Mishak and Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times
  • State Senate leader Darrell Steinberg is not happy with the cuts that would be required under Gov. Jerry Brown's spending plan. You know that old cliche about the pendulum swinging too far, Steinberg said Thursday. I think it needs to swing back.
State Senate leader Darrell Steinberg is not happy with the cuts that would… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)

Reporting from Sacramento -- During his first governorship more than three decades ago, Jerry Brown warned that California was entering an "era of limits."

The austere state budget he proposed this week is a stark acknowledgment that the Golden State has now reached them. The Democratic governor's spending plan takes large steps toward dismantling much of California's once-vaunted social safety net.

Brown proposes cutting welfare services again as the state continues its struggle to shake off the effects of a deep and persistent recession. He would continue years of reductions in Medi-Cal, child care and home health aid. He would eliminate the Healthy Families program, which was a significant expansion of healthcare in California when enacted in 1997 and serves nearly 900,000 children.

Brown was visibly frustrated as he detailed what he described as the "tough medicine" California needs to balance its books but said a $9.2-billion deficit had forced his hand.

"California government is a very generous, compassionate political jurisdiction," he said. "When we have to reduce our spending, that spending is going to have to come from programs that are doing good."

He added: "I can't figure out any better way. This is the best I can do."

In 2007, when the economy was fairly healthy and there was far less need for state aid, California spent $29.3 billion on social services, according to Brown's Department of Finance. The governor proposes leaving four years of budget cuts in place and spending $26 billion now, when poverty rates are higher and so is the demand for welfare assistance.

His plan would strip welfare benefits from people who cannot find adequate work after two years rather than four, forcing more than a quarter-million families from the rolls. Although families with children would continue to receive benefits, the average monthly check would be slashed by 20%, to $368. Child-care programs would be cut almost 40%, eliminating 62,000 slots.

The children moved out of Healthy Families would be enrolled instead in Medi-Cal, the state's healthcare program for the poor, which covers fewer costs and would take an $842-million hit in Brown's plan.

"It's appropriate that he's a former seminarian," said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and former GOP official, "because the entire state is about to have a very long Lent."

The suggested cuts in health and human services, projected to save about $2 billion, have put Brown at odds with his fellow Democrats and would diminish the brand of liberalism cultivated by his governor father, the legendary Pat Brown.

Legislative leaders wasted no time pushing back on the proposed reductions, and social services advocates protested that the ax would fall primarily on the most vulnerable Californians, as they have in past years.

"You always want your public policies to reflect what's going on in the economy," said Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, a think tank that advocates for low-income families. "The governor's proposals totally fly in the face of the economic realities for Californians right now."

Ross said the spending blueprint puts tens of thousands of children at risk for homelessness if their parents are unable to pay the bills.

Mike Herald, a lobbyist for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said the message of Brown's budget is that "we want to become a crappy welfare state like everybody else."

Brown acknowledged that his proposals would be "very hard to digest" for many lawmakers, and Democrats proved him right.

"You know that old cliche about the pendulum swinging too far," state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said Thursday. "I think it needs to swing back."

Last year, Brown and the Legislature approved $5 billion in cuts from health and human services programs, pushing welfare grants below 1987 levels and eliminating adult day-care centers for people with serious disabilities, brain injuries and chronic illnesses. (In the face of a lawsuit, the program was later reconstituted for those most at risk of being institutionalized.)

Brown received a rare nod this week from Republicans, who have thwarted his efforts to raise taxes to prevent even deeper cuts.

"The governor is dead right: this is the most generous state," said Assemblyman Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber), vice chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee. "We can no longer afford to be the most generous state."

Brown tempered his grim news with some of the sunny optimism that characterized California during his previous governorship three decades ago. And he spoke of his desire to invest in high-speed rail, renewable energy and other projects.

"The good news is: California is recovering," he said Thursday. "We are the innovative state. We're the state of Apple computer, of Facebook, of Hewlett-Packard, Hollywood, stem cell research, international trade, diversity. This is a state that's dynamic, it's creative, and it's prosperous."

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