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20121203_HA_ASSEMBLY0856.JPGCalifornia's top Senate Democrat will be in Washington next week to urge leaders to put a greater focus on mental health services in the wake of last month's mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn. elementary school.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said today that he is extending his trip east for the presidential inauguration to meet with administration officials and congressional leaders, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the state's two U.S. senators, about increasing aid for preventative and treatment programs for the mentally ill.

The Sacramento Democrat has asked the administration to consider an approach based on California's Proposition 63, the voter-approved tax on millionaires to pay for mental health programs that Steinberg authored and championed.

"We have in California, as we do in so many other areas, led the way by investing a billion dollars a year in a system that is centered on prevention, early intervention and recovery for people who are most ill," he said. "That's worth sharing with the rest of the country."

Steinberg discussed his plans hours after President Barack Obama rolled out out his own proposals for curbing gun violence, including increasing training for helping at-risk students. Steinberg said while he supports stricter gun control measures, he believes putting more "meat on those bones" in the realm of mental health services could help prevent future violence.

'It is about identifying people who might be prone to these awful acts, but it's about much more than that," he said. "It's about helping people who can lead good lives, productive lives, if we do the right thing and do the right thing early."

In a letter to Vice President Joe Biden, who is leading a task force on gun control measures, Steinberg estimated that replicating California's mental health law at the federal level would cost $10 billion. He acknowledged that "money is precious" in Washington given the ongoing debate over the federal spending and the debit ceiling, but said such an investment "would save untold numbers of lives and help untold numb of people."

"If we're serious about giving more than lip service to better mental health care for people then we're going to need to replicate what we know works and we're going to need to fund it," he said.

The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which left 26 people dead, has sparked a number of new gun-related proposals in California, which was home to the nation's strictest gun-control laws until New York lawmakers approved major legislation this week. Steinberg said he hopes to see California close what he and other gun-control advocates say is a loophole in the state's assault weapons ban and get guns out of the hands of individuals who are prohibited from owning firearms.

"We're going to make this issue a priority," Steinberg said of those bills. "We have to."

PHOTO CREDIT: Senate President Pro Temp Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento during the first day of session at the State Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. on Monday, Dec. 3, 2012. Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee.


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