Children’s Advocates Welcome Help, Hope for Solutions

Children’s advocates welcome stopgap efforts to fill some of the holes left by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (R) line-item budget cuts, but they’re hoping for long-term solutions with a new governor and Legislature in January.

Before signing the budget last month, Schwarzenegger used line-item vetoes to trim almost $1 billion from a number of programs, including mental health services for special education students, community health clinics, and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programs.

The line-item cutback that generated the quickest and perhaps most worried response was a reduction of $256 million from a program that provides subsidized child care for beneficiaries of CalWORKS, California’s welfare-to-work program. Without new revenue, subsidized child care for about 60,000 families was scheduled to end Nov. 1.

On Friday, an Alameda Superior Court judge ordered the state to continue paying for the child care program through Nov. 5 in response to a lawsuit filed by the Public Interest Law Project on behalf of Parent Voices Oakland, a local advocacy group, and four mothers. The suit argues the state did not properly notify families of their alternatives. The judge, Wynne Carvill, issued a temporary restraining order and scheduled a hearing on the matter this week.

In a rare gesture of largesse in tough economic times, Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles) pledged $6 million from the Assembly’s own operating budget and called on other funders — specifically the First 5 program — to step forward to help keep the child care subsidy in operation. First 5 is a voter-created statewide health and education program for kids ages five and younger in California.  

First 5 programs around the state are lining up to offer emergency money to keep the statewide child care subsidy going through the end of the year. First 5 LA announced last week it would offer up to $15 million. Other county First 5 programs — including Alameda and Contra Costa — are meeting this week to discuss the issue.

“This really is a crisis, and we’re glad to see some emergency help stepping forward, but we see this as a bridge solution,” said Patty Siegel, executive director at California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, which coordinates county-based child care programs.

“These cuts should be reversed in January with new people [taking office] in Sacramento,” Siegel said. “But whether they’re reversed or not, getting these parents a couple more weeks to figure things out and to make new plans will make a big difference,” Siegel said.

Moved High on the Agenda

In addition to promising money, Pérez promised to put child care and other health and welfare issues related to children high on the Legislative agenda next year.

“We’re thrilled that he’s prioritizing this,” said Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, a national research and advocacy organization based in Oakland. “We were very happy when the speaker pro tem said they were going to make this a priority in January. It’s also great that they’re trying to deal with the immediate gap — that’s fantastic. But the fact that they’re going to prioritize this at the beginning of the session — that’s really important,” Lempert said.

“If you say something is a first priority, you have a chance of actually getting it done,” Lempert said.

In his call to First 5 programs to share the wealth, Pérez took a couple shots at Schwarzenegger.

“These actions were necessitated by the governor’s arbitrary, wrongheaded vetoes that wiped out funding for critical child care programs that allow working parents to keep their children in quality, affordable daycare,” Pérez said.

“I am deeply saddened that the governor unilaterally decided to cancel funding for this vital program, which has proven its effectiveness in keeping people off of public assistance and in the work force. In effect, the governor has chosen his final legacy in office to be creating the only ‘work to welfare’ program in the country,” Pérez said.

Some of the rhetoric can be considered political posturing after a protracted and not particularly friendly budget debate between the departing Republican governor and a Democrat-dominated Legislature.

Robbing Peter To Pay Paul … Again

This isn’t the first time the relatively flush First 5 statewide program has been asked to help other cash-poor programs make ends meet. Last year, First 5 contributed $81 million to help restore the governor’s cuts to Healthy Families, California’s Children’s Health Insurance Program.

As they did last year, children’s advocates say the stopgap solution of taking money from one state-funded program and moving it — even temporarily — to another is like robbing Peter to pay Paul.

First 5’s money — about $480 million a year — comes from a tax on tobacco approved by voters in 1998. Under state law, First 5 money may only be used in programs for children ages five and younger. Parents of kids ages six to 13 in the subsidized CalWORKS program are going to have to look elsewhere for child care unless more funds are found.

“The Assembly will keep working with the state’s First 5 organizations and other concerned groups to obtain additional funding until we can send a bill to the new governor in January that fully restores the money for this vital program,” Pérez said.

‘Crisis for These People’

“I consider this to be an emergency,” said Siegel, a veteran in the social welfare trenches of California politics. “This is very much a crisis for these people, for thousands of children and their families. Nobody can scramble in 10 or 12 days and rearrange their lives — find child care, change job schedules. And it’s especially hard if you don’t have a lot of money,” Siegel said.

“It’s kind of like an arrow shot by this governor that instantly sends people into poverty and despair,” said Siegel, adding that in her 40 years as a children’s advocate in California she hasn’t seen “such a sudden enormous loss.”

“For many of these families trying to work their way out of welfare, it’s the child care subsidy that keeps it all together,” Siegel said.

Long-Term Hopes

While offers of emergency funding and temporary restraining orders from judges are welcome news, California’s children’s advocates will be looking for long-term answers in 2011.

With recent budget battles producing other threats to health and social service programs for children, including the governor’s proposal last year to scrap Healthy Families, advocates will be looking for “veto-proof” solutions.

“We need to figure out how to avoid this in the future,” Lempert said. “The overall picture isn’t pretty with our budget. We need to get creative to assure that children’s services are always the first priority so we don’t have to deal with these kinds of draconian cuts all the time,” Lempert said.

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