Monday, July 23, 2007

Legislators uncork a plan to pick the pockets of the poor

George Skelton

Capitol Journal

July 23, 2007

Sacramento — This is how it seems: The state Assembly speaker uncorked two bottles of very expensive wine as legislative leaders sat around negotiating a budget deal. They got a little buzz on and decided to go out and mug some blind, disabled and elderly poor.

That's not exactly what happened, probably. But it's close enough to be cataloged as nonfiction.

We do know this much because aides to Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) told reporters: During negotiations in his Capitol office Tuesday, Nuñez served up two distinguished Napa Valley reds — a $150, 2002 Joseph Phelps Insignia and a 2003 Quintessa Meritage valued at $224.

In the warm afterglow — well, actually, it was the next day — Nuñez took a stroll around Capitol Park with the two Republican leaders: Assemblyman Michael Villines of Clovis and Sen. Dick Ackerman of Irvine.

"The wine helped a little bit," a smiling Ackerman told reporters, referring to the negotiations. "He has good wine."

The libation didn't help enough, obviously. Ackerman and Senate Republicans still

haven't agreed to the $146-billion compromise budget that everyone else of importance has in the Capitol. Nor do they have a proposal of their own.

Anyway, it was about the time of the wine-tasting that the legislative leaders hatched their plan to roll California's most vulnerable.OK, maybe I'm guilty of a cheap shot. But it's no more a cheap shot than picking the pockets of the poor in order to bring spending and taxes closer into balance.

The victims list includes 1.2 million impoverished aged, blind and disabled, plus 500,000 welfare families, mostly single moms with two kids.

In the first category, the state figures on pocketing $123 million by delaying a $20 monthly inflation adjustment for five months. Rather than getting the bump next Jan. 1, recipients will have to wait until June 1.

These are people living on the edge off SSI-SSP — federal Supplemental Security Income and the State Supplementary Program. For most, it's their only income source. They don't get food stamps.

The current combined federal-state grant is $856 for an individual; $1,502 for a couple. There will be a $12 monthly federal increase in January, if the state doesn't wind up confiscating the federal money, as it has in the past.

In the welfare category, called Cal-WORKS, it's no surprise that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature intend to deny a cost-of-living adjustment. These recipients, living far below the poverty line, haven't gotten a benefit bump in three years. Their monthly check for a family of three is $723. They also get $330 in food stamps.

"How's somebody going to live in L.A. on $723 a month?" asks Michael Herald, lobbyist for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. "It's just a recipe for homelessness, family instability and kids going into foster care."

Legally, these welfare families should receive a $27 boost in January. But the pending budget repeals that increase so the deficit-plagued state can save $124 million.

Over the last three years, Herald calculates, Sacramento has grabbed more than $1 billion from SSI-SSP and Cal-WORKS recipients. This year, the hit totals $247 million.

Yet, in its predawn, sleepdeprived wisdom Friday, the Assembly felt the state was rich enough to brazenly pass a $900-million package of tax cuts for Hollywood film companies and other business interests. Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland) said the bill looked like it had been "written by chimpanzees" and pronounced it "dead on arrival" in his house.

At the same time, the Assembly voted to strip $1.3 billion from public transit, which many poor and disabled depend on to get around.

It was a sign of scandalized Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's loss of political clout that he didn't personally fight for the transit funds, as he has for other L.A. causes in the past. "He has been AWOL," says one leading Democrat. "He's been wounded."

Democrats, however, haven't exactly been fighting for the aged, poor and disabled either. Republicans wouldn't be expected to. But Democrats are supposed to be the defenders of the destitute. Instead, they suddenly surrendered to Republicans last week after vowing to hold their ground.

Check this Perata comment to reporters after a July 12 negotiating session with GOP leaders:

"They want us to cut in places that Democrats just didn't get elected to come up here and cut. So for any program that involves the elderly, people who are disabled, people who are mentally ill, our mantra is kind of, we're here to protect those who can't protect themselves."

Nuñez was even more adamant: "We're not going to take the canes away from the blind. We're not going to kick people out of their wheelchairs … kick poor kids into the street. We just refuse to do that under any circumstances."

Guess he was speaking literally. Could have fooled me. I and virtually everyone around the Capitol thought he was promising not to buy Republican votes with poor people's pocketbooks.

Democrats respond by pointing out that Schwarzenegger wanted to slash much deeper in SSI-SSP. He also proposed to knock at least 155,000 children off welfare — kids of parents who did not meet their work requirements — and save up to $300 million. Democrats blocked that, and spurned the governor's effort to cut $55 million from a successful program for the homeless mentally ill.

Perata does concede: "I'm not suggesting for one moment that this budget will make my highlight reel."

But Nuñez, in the predawn haze, seemed to be in a dream world: "We feel very good about the fact we were able to protect Cal-WORKS. We didn't take food away from the mouths of poor children in California. We protected senior citizens and the disabled."

Not exactly.

He added: "We made sure we didn't make cuts to public education."

That's true. They stood up for the powerful education lobby. The poor and disabled are politically weak.

"There's a lot in this budget," Nuñez concluded, "for us Democrats to be very proud of."

And ashamed of.

The wine turned to vinegar.,1,1300239.column?track=rss
From the Los Angeles Times

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