Analysis: Governor’s Budget Plan Sells Kids Short

California kids do not fare well in the governor’s proposed 2012-2013 budget, and their plight could get much worse if voters reject a tax initiative in November, according to an analysis released last week by a children’s advocacy group.

The policy analysis from Children Now includes pointed criticism of Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to deal with a $15.7 billion budget gap, pointing out that California ranks third in the nation for spending on prisons and law enforcement but is “among the lowest in per pupil spending on education and per capita spending on children’s health.”

The analysis contends that “children should be the last place policymakers look to balance California’s budget. Yet kids continue to be forced to shoulder much of the budget burden. The short- and long-term impacts of failing to invest adequately in the children of California will be immediate and severe.”

Except for the governor, no one contacted by California Healthline — including the California Taxpayers Association and the California Chamber of Commerce — disagrees publicly with the analysis. Even the Brown administration’s response barely rises to “disagreement.”

“After several years of very tough cuts there are fewer options within the general fund for reducing the budget deficit,” said Michael Weston, deputy director of public affairs and outreach programs for the state Department of Social Services.

“While these cuts will have a significant impact on families who rely on these programs, they are a necessary adjustment given this fiscally challenging time,” Weston said.

Two Main Problem Areas for Kids

Brown’s plans “place children squarely in harm’s way,” according to the analysis. “California’s kids are already grossly underserved relative to the rest of the nation’s children. If the May revise budget is passed by the Legislature, the state’s children would be forced to shoulder a huge portion of the proposal’s $8.3 billion in cuts, including massive decreases in funding for early childhood programs, education, and health and human services,” the analysis concludes.

Brown’s proposal includes two main areas of concern for Children Now –  a “major backslide in access to quality early learning for vulnerable children” and decreasing children’s access to health care by moving children from Healthy Families to Medi-Cal for health coverage.

The analysis calls Brown’s plan to cut several early childhood education programs a move “in the wrong direction for the state.”

Brown’s administration also plans to move all 875,000 children in Healthy Families — California’s federally subsidized Children’s Health Insurance Program — to Medi-Cal managed care plans. Medi-Cal is California’s Medicaid program. The state estimates the move will save California $48.6 million next year.

The analysis from Children Now says the move “would undoubtedly decrease the number of health plans and providers willing and able to serve these children, which would in turn make access to care even more difficult. In addition, as a result of the Healthy Families rate reduction, the state would stand to lose over $90 million in federal funds.”

Children Now is not alone in questioning the state’s plans for Healthy Families. More than 40 organizations and individuals — including pediatricians, health care providers, community organizations and faith-based groups — signed a statement of support for the “bright line” alternative to the full Healthy Families transition proposed by the governor. The statement says, in part:

“We support a transition of only those Healthy Families children with family income up to 130% of the federal poverty level — also known as ‘bright-line children’ — from Healthy Families into Medi-Cal starting in January 2012.”

Could Go From Bad to Worse

Brown’s budget ideas probably aren’t the worst the state has seen for children, but they’re near the bottom and the situation could get worse, according to Children Now officials.

“A few years ago, Governor [Arnold] Schwarzenegger (R) proposed eliminating the Healthy Families program altogether,” said Kelly Hardy, director of health policy for Children Now. “That, of course, would have to rank worse than this. But in general, because the budget situation keeps deteriorating, the prospects aren’t good, especially if the tax measure doesn’t pass.”

Brown’s budget hinges on voters approving a temporary sales and income tax measure on the November ballot. If the measure fails, Brown’s budget calls for an additional $6.1 billion in automatic “trigger cuts,” which “would put children’s well-being at substantial additional risk,” according to the Children Now analysis.

“It’s terrifying that children’s futures are dependent on this measure passing,” Hardy said.

‘The Children’s Movement’

Children Now is spearheading The Children’s Movement of California, an attempt to increase the clout of kids and children’s advocates in policymaking.

So far, more than 250 organizations have signed on.

The Movement’s website explains the impetus for the new organization:

“Our nation’s leaders often speak of children being a priority, yet the reality is that children continue to be underrepresented and under-funded by state and federal policymakers. Their well-being is steadily declining because our political system is driven by the interplay and competition among interest groups.”

Hardy said the new group is growing quickly.

“This is a way to harness the power of all of these organizations to advocate on behalf of children at the state level. This is Children Now’s answer to strengthening children’s voice in policymaking,” Hardy said.

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