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State May Have Set ‘Dangerous Precedent’

The state took about $1 billion from First 5 California in its most recent round of budget bills.

And it may be aiming for more.

First 5 is a series of early childhood development programs for children ages five and younger. It’s funded by a tobacco tax approved as Proposition 10 by California voters back in 1998, and it brought in a little more than $500 million last year.

That’s an attractive funding source to state lawmakers, and they recently voted to appropriate some of it. Next week, a Senate committee will hold a hearing for a bill that seeks to take the rest of it.

SB 486 by Senate member Bob Dutton (R-Rancho Cucamonga) would funnel Prop. 10 money to the general fund to be used for the Healthy Families and Medi-Cal programs. It would eliminate the California Children and Families Commission, which oversees distribution of First 5 money.

“People are really upset about this, as you can imagine,” First 5 Association of California Executive Director Sherry Novick said. “Because they just got this big hit. And now this.”

The bill is similar to several earlier bills pushed by the late Senate member Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks), including last year’s nearly identical SB 41.

“They just made a billion-dollar sweep of First 5 money. This [proposed bill] basically just keeps the money [from the tobacco tax] coming in, but into the general fund instead,” Novick said. “They want to keep the revenue stream, but not have it go to First 5 Commissions.”

Previous similar bills have died on the vine pretty quickly, Novick said. But the recent appropriation of $1 billion to help balance the budget has shown that Prop. 10 money is not sacred.

“From our perspective, it sets a dangerous precedent,” Novick said, adding that the question has been raised as to whether or not that appropriation is actually legal. “We’ll see if there are challenges,” she said. “The language of Prop. 10 says the Legislature can change it with a two-thirds vote, as long as it follows the intent of the act. And that’s the question, whether it follows the intent of the act.”

Novick said that most of the politicians who held the health and human services portion of the budget hearings were actually big supporters of those programs. They really listened to the long line of Californians who testified and advocated for First 5, she said.

“It pained me to see what they had to do,” Novick said. “However, my guess is that the families and providers who depend on First 5 programs, they have a less understanding view. There will be quite a few concerned people at this hearing, I can tell you that.”

The hearing on the proposed new bill is scheduled Apr. 13.

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