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Calif. Legislature debates plans for new budget

Posted: June 10, 2013 2:04 p.m.
Updated: June 10, 2013 2:04 p.m.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Lawmakers have until the end of the week to finish their version of California's annual budget. Unlike in recent years, this one contains a rare surplus that has emboldened Democrats to try to restore past social service cuts at the same time Gov. Jerry Brown is trying to keep a lid on spending.

"This is a dream-come-true year for those of us who have been here for a few of those really tough years," said Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, in his opening remarks as co-chair of the Legislature's joint budget committee.

Democrats in the Assembly led by Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, have promoted a spending plan that increases welfare assistance, expands child care for the poor and gives more college aid to middle-class families. The Senate, led by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, wants to restore dental care for the neediest, expand access to mental health and autism treatments, and foster job training through career technical education in high schools.

Both houses of the Legislature also want to restore some funding for California courts.

But Democrats have found resistance from one of their own. Brown proposed a $96.4 billion state spending plan for the new fiscal year starting July 1, rejecting higher revenue projections, demanding school funding reform and resisting pressure to restore services that were cut or eliminated during the recession.

An administration official told lawmakers at a budget hearing that the governor was not comfortable with either the Assembly or Senate versions of the spending plan because both rely too much on taxes paid by the wealthy. Lawmakers want to use a higher revenue estimate that projects California will take in $3.2 billion more in tax revenue than Brown anticipates.

Another finance official said the state will be able to balance its budget this year only by continuing past spending reductions.

Whatever revenue projection is ultimately adopted, the state's budget picture is brighter than in years past because of an improving economy and voters approving Brown's ballot initiative last fall that increased the state sales tax and income taxes on the wealthiest Californians.

"We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past and commit the state to an ongoing higher level of spending than the state can sustain," said H.D. Palmer, the governor's finance spokesman.

Democrats counter that modest spending increases are needed to improve the quality of life for California's neediest residents.

The Legislature has until Saturday to pass a balanced budget.

"It's our job, the way I view it, to push a little bit," Steinberg said last week at a talk hosted by the Public Policy Institute of California. "If there's no creative tension, then we're not pushing each other hard enough."

He noted that Democrats, who control a supermajority of the Legislature, are "basically aligned" with Brown on his push for a new K-12 funding formula that would channel additional money to school districts with high levels of low-income and non-English speaking children. But Steinberg and suburban lawmakers want to modify that plan to account for schools with low-income students, even if they attend more affluent districts.

"I'm relatively confident that we're going to come together pretty nicely, actually," Steinberg said.

The Senate also has proposed increasing state spending by $131 million in the new fiscal year to restore adult dental coverage for California's Medicaid recipients. The state eliminated that optional benefit in 2009 to deal with the state's budget crisis. Medicaid is known as Medi-Cal in the state.

San Diego resident Yadollah Attarinejad, 75, is hoping the Senate will prevail in budget negotiations between Brown and Democratic leaders this week. With help from the Legal Aid Society of San Diego, Attarinejad, a Medi-Cal recipient, is trying to get the state Department of Health Care Services to cover new dentures after treatment for sinus cancer left him with a deformed palate and jaw.

"I cannot eat; I have to make a special soft food, very soft, and swallow that. And this only goes with pain killers," Attarinejad said in a telephone interview.

His attorney, Jack Dailey, said his client cannot afford to pay for the dentures, which cost thousands of dollars out of pocket. But the cost to the state would only be about $450 based on provider reimbursement rates.

Dailey said the cost to the state is not that much, but the benefit to residents who need the coverage would be huge.

Brown and lawmakers also need to work out details of how the state will expand Medi-Cal to some 1.4 million Californians because the state has opted to expand the program under President Barack Obama's health care reforms. The federal government will pay the entire amount of the expanded coverage from 2014 to 2016, gradually reducing that to a 90 percent share.

The governor is proposing to cut local government support for Medi-Cal by $300 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year and up to $1.3 billion in 2015-16. Brown says the state would be paying twice if it did not reduce those payments — for providing coverage under the Medicaid expansion that will be funded by the federal government while maintaining the same level of county support for indigent health care services.

County officials and health care advocates say those cuts are too aggressive. They estimate that California will still have 3 million to 4 million uninsured residents requiring care after the Medicaid expansion, and local governments are still responsible for public health.

Republican Sen. Bill Emmerson of Redlands told the joint budget committee that he shares the governor's concerns and hopes Democrats will commit to less spending. He cited the Rolling Stones' song, "You Can't Always Get What You Want."

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.


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