Dan Walters: California safety net bills will test Jerry Brown

04/03/2013 12:00 AM

10/20/2014 1:40 PM

The first two budgets that Jerry Brown proposed after returning to the governorship cleaved deeply into California's safety net of health and welfare services serving the aged, disabled and poor.

Welfare grants and medical care payments were cut, and eligibility for those and other benefits was tightened – all needed, Brown said, to bring a deficit-ridden budget under control.

But it would be more than a temporary belt-tightening, Brown said early in his second governorship.

Brown not only defended the cuts as "necessary because we just don't have the money," but said they would be part of a permanent "retrenchment" in state spending aimed at bringing income and outgo into balance – even if taxes were, as he sought, to be raised.

"They're a retrenchment in what California was attempting to do in recent years," he said, adding, "they look permanent to me" because "the money isn't there."

Brown's fellow Democrats balked at some of the cuts Brown proposed, but he mostly got his way – in part because they saw welfare cuts as necessary to persuade reluctant voters to raise taxes, which they did in November.

However, the Legislature's mostly liberal Democrats didn't buy into Brown's stance that the cuts would be permanent, and with the state's finances now more or less in order, they want to ease up on programs affecting the poor.

The federal Affordable Care Act will likely reverse health care cuts. But welfare is another case. This year's legislative session is seeing a flock of bills to restore – or even enhance – welfare benefits.

They – and legislative changes to Brown's budget – will test whether he meant what he said, or it was just tax hike rhetoric.

Legislative sentiment was evident Tuesday as the Assembly Human Services Committee passed several bills to expand welfare and food stamp eligibility.

Assembly Bill 271, for instance, would repeal a family welfare grant ceiling enacted in the 1990s aimed at blocking recipients from gaining new income from every new child.

Its author, Los Angeles Democrat Holly Mitchell, called it "an anti-poverty measure to stop punishing poor children," and it, like the other bills, was backed by welfare rights and social service groups.

Another measure, Assembly Bill 197 by the committee chairman, Scotts Valley Democrat Mark Stone, would exclude the value of a car from a welfare applicant's eligibility. A third, Assembly Bill 191 by Los Angeles Democrat Raul Bocanegra, would expand eligibility for CalFresh (formerly known as food stamps), potentially by several million Californians.

Despite recent cuts, California still has the nation's most expansive and expensive array of welfare and other social services.

Brown will have the last word on whether it grows even larger.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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