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first_5_sacramento_2006.JPGLawmakers are revising their budget plan so the state can use $1 billion in First 5 tobacco tax money for children's Medi-Cal services without going to the ballot.

Gov. Jerry Brown had initially proposed that the state take $1 billion in 2011-12 from state and local First 5 commissions and then redirect 50 percent of their future tax dollars toward other state services. The commissions provide services for children in the first five years of life.

Brown's plan called for a ballot measure to amend Proposition 10, which voters approved in 1998. It was initially thought that taking Proposition 10 money for Medi-Cal services for children would require voter approval; in fact, lawmakers went to the ballot in 2009 to attempt the same thing, unsuccessfully.

But the new proposal now calls for using First 5 money once in 2011-12 and foregoing Brown's plan to take money in the future, according to Sherry Novick, executive director of the First 5 Association of California. Novick's group represents the 58 county commissions whose $950 million in reserves would be tapped. An additional $50 million would come from the state commission.

Lawmakers believe that if they take the money only once, they can do so on a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. Proposition 10, a constitutional amendment, allows lawmakers to amend its provisions so long as the changes "further the act" and are "consistent with its purposes." Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, confirmed Thursday that the Legislature is seeking to avoid the ballot on First 5.

Going that route risks a legal challenge from First 5 commissions, which could argue that taking the money for Medi-Cal is not consistent with Proposition 10. Democratic leaders are trying to negotiate the matter with the First 5 commissions, with the upside being that the state would not take future revenues as the governor had proposed.

Brown's budget said First 5 commissions had about $2 billion in reserve. But Novick said as of last June, half the money was already under contract and cannot be accessed by the state. Another 30 percent, she said, is already committed to programs, while the remainder is undedicated. She said First 5 commissions would likely have to cut spending on children's health care, preschool and child abuse prevention in order to comply with a $1 billion shift.

"We're really happy with not doing away with the future revenues," Novick said. "But we think $950 million is way too much."

The 2009 First 5 proposal, Proposition 1D, failed by a 34 percent to 66 percent vote.

One motivation is being able to sweep up $1 billion without voter approval, but another is keeping the ballot clean. Lawmakers believe that the array of budget measures made the 2009 ballot confusing, and they want to go to voters with only one measure extending tax hikes for five years and shifting programs to local governments.

Brown released language earlier this week dubbing the ballot measure the "Public Safety and Public Education Act of 2011."

"I do think that simplicity is important," Steinberg said. "It complicated an already difficult challenge with five ballot measures. One ballot measure makes a whole lot of sense."

PHOTO CREDIT: First 5 Sacramento, file photo, 2006.



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