Legislature Starts to Begin to Commence to Approve a Budget

The Legislature lurched toward passage of a budget plan March 16, sending bills to Gov. Jerry Brown aimed at reducing state spending by some $7.5 billion, about half of the savings coming from reduced payments to welfare recipients, less health care for the poor and scaled back services for the developmentally disabled.

Lawmakers worked until after 9:30 pm – in fits and starts – attempting to pass the measures, which represent almost half of the 20-bill package that comprises the Legislature’s plan to close an estimated $25.4 billion gap between revenues and spending commitments over the next 15 months.

Generally, the plan is a 50-50 split with $12.5 billion in spending reductions and $12 billion in revenue from extending several temporary taxes enacted in previous budgets slated to expire this year.

Two Republican votes in each house are needed to place the tax proposal on the ballot. Voter support is needed to enact it.

Throughout the day, Democrats repeatedly said the cuts they were embracing were, as one lawmaker put it, “horrendous” but that it was paramount to put the state’s fiscal house in order.

“I hate these cuts. These cuts go against every fiber of my body but they pale against what we face with prolonged fiscal instability,” said Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, the Van Nuys Democrat who chairs the lower house’s budget committee.

Republican lawmakers claimed that if Democrats had embraced their proposals for, among other things, reducing pension benefits for public employees, such harsh cuts to the poor and disabled could have been avoided.

Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, a Laguna Niguel Republican, accused Democrats of backing the reductions to scare voters into approving a five-year extension of taxes that are slated to expire this year.

No matter how steep, reductions in pension benefits have no impact on the budget of the current fiscal year.

Stalled in the Assembly — one vote short of passage — was a measure to eliminate the state’s 450 redevelopment agencies, generating about $1.7 billion in budget savings.

Assemblyman Chris Norby, an Irvine Republican, gave an impassioned – and articulate – argument in favor of the bill before voting for it but one more GOP vote was needed to send the measure to the Senate.

Brown worked Assembly members one-on-one to cajole a lawmaker – any lawmaker – into casting the final vote needed for passage. He fell short.

The bill, SB 77, was given a second chance for a vote on March 17.

Among the actions taken in the bills sent to Brown by the Legislature is an 8 percent reduction in monthly support checks to the state’s 1.4 million welfare recipients, of whom two-thirds are children.

For a family of three in a high cost county, that’s a drop of $694 per month to $638. Brown proposed a 13 percent reduction.

The limit for families to receive aid would also be limited to four years instead of the current five. And more of a recipient’s income from holding a job would be counted against the size of their grants.

Another bill, SB 74, would require the state Department of Developmental Services to reduce spending by $560 million through a variety of cost savings, emotionally decried by several lawmakers with children who have disabilities.

Also approved was a one-time transfer to the state of $1 billion from revenue generated by Proposition 10 – a 50 cent-per-pack tax on cigarettes – t pay for health care costs for children under the age of five.

Lawmakers also approved a 10 percent reduction in the rates paid to doctors and hospitals that provide services under Medi-Cal, the state’s health care system for the poor. California already has on of the lowest reimbursement rates in the nation.

The same measure, AB 97, also increases the payments Medi-Cal recipients make for treatment including $5 co-pays for doctor visits and prescription drugs, $50 co-pays for emergency room visits and $100 for hospital stays with a maximum of $200 per stay. The bill also generally caps annual doctor visits at seven, prompting Assemblywoman Linda Halderman, a Fresno Republican and surgeon specializing in breast cancer, to question the Legislature’s expertise in dictating what constitutes an appropriate number of annual doctor visits:

“There’s no standard of care for any chronic illness that allows a cap on visits of seven per year.”

Also expected to be signed by the Democratic governor is AB 99, a transfer to the state of some $861 million raised by Proposition 63, which added a surcharge on state income taxes for persons with adjustable income over $1 million to pay for improved local mental health programs.

“Today’s decisions are difficult ones,” said Assembly Speaker John Perez, a Los Angeles Democrat. “(But) California clearly cannot continue doing business as usual.”

Part of the difficulty of approving the bills March 16 – at least in the Assembly – was that they were urgency measures, which require a two-thirds vote.

That’s 54 in the 80-member Assembly and 27 in the 40-member Senate.

In either house that means two Republicans must vote for a bill to pass.

Winning the necessary votes was easier in the less fractious Senate, which approved a majority of the bills they considered on unanimous votes.

Completing work on the budget package is scheduled for St. Patrick’s Day.


Filed under: Budget and Economy

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