Brown budget plan would shift services to locals
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – The budget plan that Gov. Jerry Brown offered this week goes far beyond a blueprint to close California’s $25.4 billion deficit: Brown wants to change the way Californians interact with their government, improve the speed and quality of the services they get and give local officials more discretion to spend money.
As he proposes deep cuts to a host of state programs and a five-year extension of temporary taxes, the Democratic governor also is seeking a government restructuring that he calls a “vast and historic realignment.”
Local law enforcement would take over responsibility for low-level and juvenile offenders, parolees and rehabilitation programs; cities and counties would operate child welfare programs like adoptions, child abuse services and foster care; and local fire departments would handle emergency calls in semi-rural areas.
Local officials already deliver many of the services, but the money is funneled through bureaucratic state agencies, and they’ve long argued they can operate them more efficiently. Brown says eliminating the middle man – state government – will lead to savings in the long run.
“We want to take that money and leave it at the local level for the purposes that it was historically intended: police or fire or local activities, counties or schools,” Brown said Monday as he unveiled his spending plan for the 2011-12 fiscal year.
Authorities in the 58 county governments and hundreds of cities throughout California are uniformly wary of Brown’s funding plan, which relies on a far-from-certain ballot measure in which he’ll ask voters to extend a series of temporary taxes.
The taxes would end in five years, while the programs would shift permanently to local governments, although Brown promised the state would commit to permanent funding.
Yolo County Supervisor Mike McGowan called Brown’s proposal a “paradigm shift” in the way state and local governments interact, giving local leaders authority to decide what’s best for their community.
“The one-size-fits-all approach we’ve had to live with from the state level has been unworkable, and certainly very expensive,” he said. “We spend half our time trying to prove we’ve met the requirements (of state-run programs) and not as much time in the field doing the job.”
The first area to transfer authority is public safety, where Brown wants to make counties responsible for the roughly 1,300 juvenile delinquents in state custody, along with tens of thousands of adult offenders convicted of non-serious, nonviolent and non-sexual offenses.
It’s intended to save money and free up space in overcrowded state prisons. Brown said nearly 50,000 inmates a year stay less than 90 days after they’re sent to state prison – a huge cost that could be cut if local offenders stayed in local facilities.
But many county jails are overcrowded, too. Some have even capped their populations because of court orders or safety concerns.
San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos agreed that counties may be best suited to incarcerate and track low-level and youthful offenders – as long as the funding follows.
“I guess the argument on the other side would be, ‘Who knows better than our own probation departments'” how to handle local offenders, said Ramos, president of the California District Attorneys Association.
The shift to a more centralized state government began after voters in 1978 approved Proposition 13, which rolled back local property taxes and capped annual increases. The state took on much of the financial burden for schools and other services.
Brown acknowledged after a meeting with county officials last week that service needs vary widely between counties, which have vast discrepancies in population, density, income level and education.
For instance, one county might want to focus on mental health and substance abuse treatment as it operates California’s welfare-to-work program, another on job training, and another on subsidized child care.
“They are in a better position to make those choices than the state is in telling them how to run those programs,” said Diane Cummins, a budget adviser who helped the governor draft his realignment plan. “Let’s give them the operating flexibility to do that.”
Many of the social services and safety programs receive federal funding, so they will still have state oversight, but thousands of state jobs are likely to be cut.
The changes could lead to a patchwork of different policies, penalties and services as counties decide how best to spend their money. That’s already the case in some areas of law enforcement, where county prosecutors and judges have discretion in their decisions.
“You very well could have 58 counties just handling things differently. That’s part of his intent, I think, making things closer to the people,” said Karen Pank, executive director of the Chief Probation Officers Association of California.
Brown would pay for the services if voters approve a series of tax extensions set to expire at the end of June: a 0.25 percent income tax surcharge, a 1.15 percent vehicle license fee and a 1 percent extension in sales tax.
Californians rejected a complicated ballot measure that sought an extension of the same taxes just two years ago, but voters have shown they are more willing to pay for services in their own communities. An analysis by The Associated Press after last year’s June primary found California voters approved 73 percent of the 60 local revenue measures on ballots in a six-month span.
Brown also would eventually ask voters to lower the ballot threshold for local governments to raise taxes in an effort to help counties raise more revenues down the line.
He is already facing resistance from local officials on his plans to eliminate redevelopment agencies that fund local construction projects and end a tax break for businesses that operate in depressed areas designated as enterprise zones.
The California League of Cities said Tuesday the plan could be an unconstitutional money grab and vowed to fight it.
Associated Press writers Judy Lin and Don Thompson also contributed to this report.
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