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Updated at 12:40 p.m.

A trio of First 5 agencies said Tuesday they have filed suit to block the state from taking $1 billion from the statewide network of childhood development programs, marking the first legal challenge to Gov. Jerry Brown's budget.

The three county commissions -- Fresno, Merced and Madera -- said the shift of funds without voter approval sets a "dangerous precedent." They said the move contradicts the "original intent" of Proposition 10, the 1998 voter-approved measure to tax tobacco products to fund health and educational development programs for children under 5 years old.

"The Legislature is disregarding the will of the voters and taking local funds from counties to fill holes in the state budget," First 5 Merced County Commission Chair Jerry O'Banion, a county supervisor, said in a statement.

The governor and lawmakers agreed last month to take $1 billion from First 5 programs, including $950 million from county commission reserves and $50 million from the state.

Budget proposals face legal challenges each year, particularly in deficit times when lawmakers find new ways to cut programs. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger frequently complained about courts blocking his budget proposals, decisions that added to deficits in subsequent years.

Brown had originally proposed asking voters to take the $1 billion in addition to half of future First 5 tobacco tax revenues. But the Legislature dropped the plan to take future funds and believed it did not need voter approval to sweep the $1 billion, which the state is using to pay for Medi-Cal for children up to 5 years old.

Under Proposition 10, the Legislature can change First 5 with a two-thirds vote of the Legislature so long as the amendment furthers the intent of the initiative. The county commissions dispute that the budget proposal does that.

The commissions filed suit Tuesday in Fresno Superior Court. Zoua Vang, spokeswoman for First 5 Fresno County, said the three county commissions are sharing legal costs but are asking for reimbursement from the state should they prevail.


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