Advocacy groups coming hat in hand to a less-strapped Sacramento

Advocacy groups coming hat in hand to a less-strapped Sacramento
Now that California’s budget picture is improved, advocates for groups that have taken cuts are seeking more funds. But Gov. Jerry Brown plans to be cautious.
By Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO — Now that California faces a dramatically smaller deficit, advocacy groups and other interests are queuing up with wish lists totaling hundreds of millions of dollars in case the spending spigot opens even slightly.

Children’s advocates want day-care centers inspected more often. Dentists want their poor patients’ coverage restored. Universities want funds to prevent further tuition increases, replace old computers and perform maintenance. Cities say the state should let them keep more of the money left over from defunct redevelopment agencies.

But California still has financial problems, even after years of steep service cuts, and Gov. Jerry Brown has vowed to keep a tight rein on the budget. State finances could take a turn for the worse if the federal budget standoff sends the country into a new recession or tax revenue doesn’t keep pace with spending.

Labor unions that took compensation cuts this year and then put their political muscle behind Brown’s successful tax-hike campaign may also look for more money. Almost every contract involving state workers — covering about 172,000 employees from 10 unions — is set to expire this summer.

Brown has not said publicly how he would cover next year’s budget gap, which the nonpartisan legislative analyst projected at $1.9 billion. The governor is expected to unveil his spending blueprint in January.

Still, many groups “feel they should be at the head of the line and get their money back next year,” said Mike Herald, a lobbyist at the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “Being shy just means you’ll be at the back of the line.”

Herald has his own wish list, including raising monthly welfare grants and increasing aid for the disabled.

Kim Kruckel, executive director at the Child Care Law Center in San Francisco, said she’s been huddling with fellow advocates to decide what to request from Brown and lawmakers. She noted that spending on subsidized child care has been cut $1 billion in four years.

“Could we start to work our way back up? Ten or 20% per year?” Kruckel said. “That sounds reasonable.”

Environmental advocates hope for more resources to control hazardous waste and other dangers through the Department of Toxic Substance Control.

“It hasn’t been the most effective agency,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. “If we want to make it work, they’re going to have to substantially increase their funding.”

Advocates for dental care for the poor already have a powerful supporter in their corner, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). He frequently recalls his August visit to a temporary dental clinic in Sacramento, where hundreds camped overnight to get free care and volunteer dentists yanked 2,700 rotted teeth.

In a September conversation with The Times’ editorial board, Steinberg said he regretted the cuts the government had made in dental coverage for the poor.

“I thought to myself, ‘God, how could I have ever done that,'” he said.

More than 3 million adults lost their coverage in 2009. That saved the state $55 million annually and sacrificed an equal amount of federal money.

Anthony Wright, executive director of the advocacy group Health Access, said Sacramento should restore the money, ensuring that all adults are covered when Medi-Cal expands in 2014 to an estimated 2 million more people under President Obama’s healthcare law.

Reviving dental care “could bring hundreds of millions of dollars into our healthcare system, into our economy, and help people have better health,” Wright said.

The California Medical Assn. also wants more funding as the state prepares to enlarge healthcare coverage. David Ford, the group’s associate director of medical and regulatory policy, said administrators will need more staff to process an influx of newly covered Californians.

“We have to be ramping up,” he said.

Advocates worry that the new healthcare law will be undermined in California because the state’s Medi-Cal cuts could make it harder for the poor to get care. A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that the state can reduce payments to doctors and others who care for Medi-Cal patients; provider groups say they will appeal.

Other activists want to restore spending on in-home care for the elderly and disabled. Deborah Doctor, a lobbyist for Disability Rights California, said the state should restore a 3.6% cut made this year and drop a court battle it’s been fighting to further reduce hours of care 20%.

If there’s not enough money to do so yet, Doctor said, officials should raise more revenue. She acknowledged that would be controversial because voters just approved higher taxes.

But “there’s nothing that should be off the table if the alternative is harming poor people,” she said.

Democrats hold two-thirds of the Legislature, allowing them to raise taxes without Republican support. But Legislative leaders have said that’s not an option.

The University of California and California State University systems are pushing hard for more money after years of funding cuts. Cal State wants $371.8 million, and UC says it needs $276.7 million, partly to prevent further increases in student tuition and fees.

Not everyone plans to be as aggressive.

“We can’t get greedy,” said Scott Lay, president of the Community College League. The two-year colleges are already anticipating automatic funding increases under the state’s school funding law.

Chris Hoene of the California Budget Project, which advocates for low-income families, agreed that caution is needed.

“The danger in the current environment is that everyone rushes to restore their favorite programs too soon,” he said. “There’s some good news, but we haven’t completely turned the corner yet.”

Copyright © 2012, Los Angeles Times