Advocates push lawmakers to help social programs in budget

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — As California lawmakers begin drilling into Gov. Jerry Brown's $115 billion budget proposal, Democrats and social welfare advocates say they see many areas that need even more funding to make up for deep cuts during the recession.

Democratic leaders in the Legislature say expanding affordable child care is their top priority. And advocates for children, seniors and disabled people have a long list of requests that includes increasing spending on health care for immigrants who are in the country illegally and restoring cash assistance to low-income seniors and people with disabilities.

They also want to raise Medi-Cal payments to doctors, dentists and other providers, and boost funds for people with developmental disabilities.

The California Budget & Policy Center, a liberal think tank, said state support for child care and preschool is $1.1 billion less than before the recession, resulting in 20 percent fewer slots.

"When (parents) get a child care slot, it's like they won the lottery," said Mary Ignatius, an organizer with Parent Voices, a child care advocacy group.

Prying more money from Brown will be difficult, even though his spending plan reflects a $6.7 billion increase in tax collections over his initial projection. By law, most of the surplus must go to public schools and filling California's rainy day account, so there's much less discretionary spending than lawmakers would like.

"I don't think the governor is in a handing-out-money sort of mood," said Jessica Levinson, who has written about state budgets and teaches at Loyola Law School. "It's a normal human response to say let's spend the money. And I think time and time again, he's hit the brakes on that impulse."

Brown defended his cautious approach, explaining that he wants to avoid the kind of fiscal turmoil that came with the recession and forced the state to make deep cuts to education and social services. He heeded Democrats' call to fight poverty by proposing a targeted $380 million earned income tax credit that his administration said would help as many as 2 million Californians.

"I don't want to get caught in the jaws of the persistent fiscal instability of the state government of California," Brown said in announcing his revised spending plan on Thursday. "There it is."

Republicans applauded Brown's fiscal restraint and said more savings will be needed as the state faces billions in unfunded pension and retiree health benefits.

Social advocates are seeking a more sympathetic ear from the Democrats who control both houses of the Legislature and don't need GOP votes to pass a budget. The Legislature's nonpartisan budget analyst said Friday the state will collect a few billion dollars more than Brown estimates, raising hope for more spending.

"We're looking for the Legislature to do more to help address deep poverty and the people who are still being left behind," said Mike Herald, a lobbyist with the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

Lawmakers have until midnight on June 15 to enact a balanced budget and send it to the Democratic governor for his signature.

The California Budget & Policy Center said a state supplemental grant for seniors and people with disabilities is down $1.4 billion, more than a third less than its pre-recession level in 2007.

Meanwhile, participants in the state's welfare to work program have not received an increase in eight years. The maximum grant for a family of three in a high-cost county is $704 a month.

Civil rights icon Dolores Huerta, who has two grandchildren with special needs, joined a coalition of disability rights advocates in urging a 10 percent increase in state funding for people with developmental disabilities.

"Disability rights are civil rights," Huerta said in a video recording.

Advocates for children stress that kids have been disproportionately hurt. California now has a child poverty rate of 27 percent, the worst in the nation, according to a February report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Some groups are already modifying their requests in an effort to make it more appealing to Brown.

With just $4 million, the Legislature could fund a virtual pediatric dental office in 20 underserved communities, said Kathy Dresslar, a lobbyist with The Children's Partnership.

The program would use portable imaging equipment and an Internet-based dental records system to help dentists and hygienists see the X-rays and dental charts of three times as many children from low-income families on Medi-Cal, said Dresslar, who was chief of staff to former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

"It's not the kind of long-term permanent drain on the general fund that this governor hates," she said.

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