Wednesday, July 25, 2007

25 days without a budget: GOP BUDGET PLAN WOULD SLASH WELFARE

Proposal to go before the full Senate would cut $1 billion more than the Assembly version and remove aid from thousands of families.

by Evan Halper and Jordan Rau—LA Times Staff Writers

July 25, 2007 - SACRAMENTO - After holding up the state budget nearly a month past deadline, Senate Republicans offered Tuesday to end the impasse if Democrats would move tens of thousands of poor families off welfare and make dozens of additional program cuts.

The Republicans will present their proposed state budget before the full Senate today. It would cut numerous programs Democrats hold dear, including the elimination of an institute for labor studies at the University of California. The budget plan includes nearly $1 billion in spending reductions beyond those in the bipartisan plan approved by the Assembly on Friday.

Senate Republican Leader Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine) made public only a few of the cuts his caucus would propose.

School groups and law enforcement organizations remain skeptical of his promise that they will be unaffected. On Tuesday, they unleashed an aggressive lobbying and media campaign to pressure moderate GOP senators to vote for the Assembly-approved budget.

"If we are going to educate kids and get them to the next level, we have to start that process now," said Pam Brady, president of the California State PTA. She said school districts can't plan for the coming academic year without a budget in place

"We are encouraging the Senate to pass the Assembly bill so we can get onto the business of educating children," she said.

Though Democrats command a majority in the Senate, at least two GOP votes are required for passage of a budget. The Republicans in the Senate are holding out those votes in an effort to force down state spending. For weeks, however, they have declined to disclose their specific demands. After an unsuccessful all-night lockdown of the chambers that was designed to force a budget deal, Senate Leader Don Perata (D-Oakland) said Saturday morning that he would not negotiate further until Republicans presented their proposal to the full Senate.

Perata said he was reserving comment until his office received a copy of the proposal. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office said the same.

The linchpin of the plan, Ackerman said, is a $324-million cut in the state's welfare program. The cut was initially proposed by the governor in January, but Schwarzenegger had not been aggressively pushing for its inclusion in the spending plan adopted by the Legislature.

The proposal is aimed at families that do not meet minimum work requirements in the state's CalWORKS program, as well as families that have been receiving benefits for more than five years. It would eliminate safety net cash grants that are intended to keep children whose parents do not meet work requirements from becoming homeless. Children whose parents are in the country illegally also could lose assistance under the Republican plan.

"People are working less" and staying on welfare longer, Ackerman said.

Advocates for the poor were alarmed to see the governor's January proposal revived. They said it would result in as many as 40,000 families losing state assistance.

"These cuts are nothing more than stealing from children," said Michael Herald, legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. He warned that they would "devastate the poorest and most needy families in our state" and "reduce the incentive for families to move from welfare to work."

The GOP plan also calls for extracting an additional $80 million from the welfare system by sending investigators to recipients' homes in an effort to root out fraud. That part of the proposal also would force recipients to frequently reenroll in the program, so that the state can more closely monitor their eligibility.

Ackerman also called for the elimination of the labor institute at UC, a $6-million program Republicans have been trying to kill for years. They complain that the institute uses state money to train labor leaders.

"They should be teaching general education," Ackerman said.

Also targeted for elimination is a facility owned by UC in Mexico, and a plan to fill 6,000 vacancies on the state payroll. The Republicans also are demanding the elimination of certain environmental restrictions on builders, as well as forbidding bond money approved by voters to be used on environmental programs.

Ackerman repeated his promise that the GOP would not cut K-12 education or public safety.

But school groups and law enforcement organizations are wary and are pressing Republican senators to pass the Assembly's budget plan. The California Police Chiefs Assn. issued a statement that called the Assembly's bill "one of the strongest public safety budgets in our memory.... We hope that the Senate will adopt this budget when they reconvene this Wednesday."

School groups directed their efforts at two of the more moderate lawmakers in the Senate GOP caucus, Jeff Denham (R-Salinas) and Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria). Both hail from "swing" voting districts and have broken with their caucus in the past to side with teachers unions and other education groups.

In Modesto, the heart of Denham's district, educators held a news conference at which they repeatedly called on him to protect their funding. They will hold another news conference in his district today.

"We are asking Sen. Denham to work with his fellow Republican senators to pass a budget this week that will protect public education from cuts," said Charlie Young, a high school teacher and board member of the National Education Assn.

State Supt. of Schools Jack O'Connell also was at the event. "The Senate Republicans can no longer afford to be obstructionists," he said.

In an interview at the Capitol, Denham said he was feeling the pressure. "Tons of people are calling me," he said.

But Denham said he had no plans to part with his caucus at this time.

"I've always been somewhat of a maverick, but I make decisions based on the best policy.... I can't vote for something that is so out of whack that it is going to force a tax increase or force cuts to education next year."

Maldonado was less certain. Though he said he would vote for the caucus plan if it did not cut schools, public safety or certain agriculture subsidies, he added that "there are a lot of things I like about the budget that was put up [for a vote] Friday night."

"I see us having a budget soon," he said.

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