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State Budget Choices Outline Our Values, Priorities and Neglects

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June 8, 2016

[The State Budget] concerns profound moral questions about who are we as a society, how we view our future and whether as a people we can look beyond our own self-interest to the interest of the larger society.  (In Search of the Common Good, 2011)

Over the course of the next few days, the Governor and Legislative leaders will make decisions regarding the State Budget that will impact millions of Californians. 

From schools to fire protection, water policy to housing, mental health to education, competing regional needs vie with political realities and, most importantly, available resources.

In their statement, the California Bishops were clear that the “sanctity of life is the root of all human rights” and the “threshold rights of life, food, shelter and medical care must be seen as the highest priority.”

Maintaining these “threshold” rights has been a challenge since the non-stop budget crises that characterized the Great Recession of 2008 and its aftermath.  Slowly – too slowly for many people barely surviving on the margin – some of the protections have been returning.

In Search of the Common Good was issued in 2011, at the height of the economic calamity, but its message still resonates with conditions in the Golden State today.  This Budget cycle, California’s elected officials have the opportunity to improve on that recovery:

Repealing the Maximum Family Grant (MFG) Rule – Denying an increase in benefits to families having another child endangers both the life of the child and the family.  The cap on benefits was designed to prevent mothers from having more children just to raise their assistance amounts.  Not only does that assertion defy common sense but 20 years of research on the very topic has shown the argument is invalid.  (See “Maximum Family Grant Placing Subtle Pressure on Poor Women.”)

The California Catholic Conference and many other groups have been working to repeal the grant for many years.  Both Legislative Houses have agreed to do so but no word from the Governor on his intentions.  You can email Governor Brown in support of repealing the rule which threatens children and families.

Supporting the Elderly, Blind and Disabled – Many seniors and others depend on Supplemental Security Income/State Supplementary Payment (SSI/SSP) which is partially paid by the Federal and State governments.  Even the addition of a couple of dollars a month can make all the difference to people on fixed incomes.  But annual Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA) were eliminated in 2010 for California’s seniors, blind and disabled.  Those completely dependent on this income now live below the Federal Poverty Line (which many studies have shown is consistently inadequate for California’s high cost of living.)

The Assembly and the Governor want to give these recipients $4.32 more per month.  The Senate has set the mark at $10.00 per month.  This COLA – which is one-time only – will not come near to making up for the six years without any adjustments.

Housing and Homelessness – To combat housing insecurity for CalWORKs recipients and the elderly, blind and disabled, the Senate and Assembly have different proposals. 

For housing, the Assembly has a $650 million package with a variety of programs; the Senate has $200 million for a different set of programs.  The Governor’s proposal already has $35 million to deal with housing security issues for CalWORKs recipients.   The Assembly added $15 million to that.  And, lastly, the Senate is proposing a $2 billion bond to build housing for chronically homeless.   The Governor has not yet responded but this is something officials will have to sort out.

Other significant issues are also intertwined in the Budget negotiations.  An effort to pay for the lethal dose of drugs for Medi-Cal patients is still being considered.  (Read more here and voice you opposition here.)  Slight increases in the number of Pre-K slots for young learners are being proposed but other changes will create restrictions in early learning opportunities.  (Learn more here.)

To be sure, even in fabled, magical California there are limits to the available resources.  Living in a society requires us collectively to make choices regarding our priorities.  Where should we place the emphasis?

In Search of the Common Good, A Moral Framework for Addressing California's Budget Crisis by the California Catholic Conference, states emphatically:

This personal recognition that we are all invested in the common welfare of California must transform the debate on California’s budget priorities into a true dialogue about shared sacrifice among partners.  The acceptance of shared sacrifice is crucial in an era of increasing concentration of wealth and disparity of income in society.  Further reduction in the net present tax burden with the full realization that the poor, fragile and forgotten will experience the cruel consequences is unacceptable.

Which values will exemplify California in the coming years will depend a lot on what happens in the next few days in Sacramento.