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Surprisingly Contentious Passage of SB 36

A bill passed this week by the Assembly Committee on Health would help California counties tap federal money to recoup some of the costs associated with providing health care for low-income children.

SB 36 by Sen. Joseph Simitian (D-Santa Clara), already approved by the Senate, started the Assembly process in front of the health committee.

“This measure authorizes or allows,” Simitian said, carefully enunciating this part, “it does not require — does not require, only allows or authorizes — counties to receive additional funding when treating poor children.”

Counties that voluntarily participate in the program stand to make some substantial cash. For instance, Simitian said, the county of San Mateo could pull in an extra $200,000 in federal money.

“This is particular important in our high-cost state, where the cost of living is higher,” Simitian said, “and particularly in the high-cost counties in this high-cost state.”

A number of questions were raised by committee members, such as whether or not these funds disappear when national health care reform is fully in place in 2014. “These access funds are currently available,” Simitian answered. “If and when health care reform is in place, then we’ll see whether this is still available. But until that time, we should access federal funds that are available to us.”

Concerns were raised that counties would somehow be locked into providing coverage to low-income children. Assembly member Martin Garrick (R-San Diego) felt that getting federal assistance for children whose families make 400% of poverty level was too high. “That 400% level seems to be the maximum amount permitted. Does it have to be that amount?”

Simitian explained that counties could receive federal funding for children at any income level up to 400%. “We’re not imposing that figure on anyone,” he said. “Counties can participate at 300 or 350%, and that would be their choice.”

Simitian was slightly taken aback at the opposition. “Last year, this bill passed 18-1 on a bipartisan vote,” Simitian said. “I’m not sure exactly if anything has changed. People are allowed to change their minds. But this program is entirely voluntary. And this money will be spent — the only question is whether that money will come to Californians, and to children here, or not.”

The bill passed 15-4, and now moves to the Assembly Committee on Appropriations.

Meanwhile, there was an interesting moment in this week’s Assembly Committee on Health hearing. Senate member Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) paused at the dais and addressed the committee in a deep voice:

“I would like to propose a 600-foot buffer zone,” he said, “between the Legislature and the Controller.”

That joke about legislative salaries being withheld got an instant motion and a second. Committee Chair Bill Monning (D-Carmel) called for a vote. It all happened in the blink of an eye.

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