Figuring Out Assembly Bill 39

The first thing to know is AB 39 by Jim Beall (D-San Jose) is really AB 3632.

The new bill, to be heard when the Legislature goes back to work Jan. 3, was written to replace money appropriated this year by the old bill (AB 3632), which was vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger and his blue pencil at the end of the last session.

That’s the simple part. Explaining just what that money is for, that’s a little tougher.

Basically, the bill wants to use $57 million from the state Mental Health Services Fund for special education services. The fund, set up by Prop. 63, the Mental Health Services Act, is supposed to be used by county mental health programs. Since it’s a mental health program in public schools, which are also run by counties, that makes sense.

It’s a federally mandated program so it has to be funded, but no one can figure out exactly where the money should come from.

The schools’ mental health program costs roughly $220 million. But the federal government, which mandates the program, only chips in part of the money, about $76 million last year. Which means someone needs to come up with the other $144 million — and that might be the state, or the counties, or the Department of Education.

In the past, a large chunk of that money came from the state. AB 3632 was designed to continue that practice. The new bill, AB 39, is also designed to do that.

Passage of that bill, though, is expected to be an uphill climb, given the mammoth budget deficit Governor-elect Jerry Brown and the new Legislature are going to be grappling with next month. The bill has an urgency provision, which means it needs a two-thirds vote to pass.

If it’s not passed, the next question is: Who will pay for the mandated program? Education is facing even more cuts, and it can’t pay a new bill that size. And it’s the same story for the counties.

Further complicating the whole thing is that the counties can get a Medi-Cal match to ease the numbers crunch,. But that raises the question: If it’s an education project, shouldn’t that department take care of it, and pay the counties by contracting the whole thing out to them?

It’s all up for debate when the Legislature starts up again in a few weeks. It can go to committee as soon as Jan. 6.

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