California Repeals Controversial Welfare Rule

by | June 16, 2016 AT 12:30 PM

By Jessica Calefati

Capping a month of remarkably productive talks between Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic leaders, lawmakers on Wednesday adopted a new state budget that repeals a harsh welfare rule advocates for needy families had fought against for years.

Assembly members barely debated the $122.5 billion general fund budget, passing it 52-27. The Senate approved the spending plan 27-11 over the objections of most Republicans, who argued that the Legislature was a bit too generous this year and should have saved more of the tax revenue it collected.

In passing the budget Wednesday, the Legislature met its June 15 constitutional deadline. Brown has until the end of the month to sign the spending plan.

For the last two decades, the "maximum family grant" has blocked mothers who give birth while enrolled in the state-funded CalWorks program from receiving any extra financial support for their newborns. Critics said the rule stemmed from the false, stigmatizing idea that poor women on welfare were getting pregnant to reap more cash aid.

But starting in January, under the agreement, an estimated 130,000 children in 95,000 families across the state will be eligible to receive extra funding -- $136 per child each month.

The extra help will make a monumental difference in the lives of many poor women, saidBethany Renfree, 34, a former CalWorks recipient.

"I know how many mothers struggled to get by because of this unfair rule. I was one of them," said Renfree, a single mother of five who couldn't receive aid for one child because of the rule. She's now policy director for the State Commission on the Status of Women and Girls.

"A lot of people worked really hard for this," Renfree said. "Today is a good day."

Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, won praise from her colleagues Wednesday for working harder to eliminate the rule than anyone else. She felt so frustrated by the Legislature's inaction on the issue last year that she defiantly refused to vote on the budget.

"The maximum family grant is an antiquated policy based on a flawed hypothesis," Mitchell said. "The woman who would have a baby for an additional $130 a month does not exist. It's a racist, classist, sexist policy."

The policy shift will cost the state's general fund $95 million during the fiscal year that begins in July. But after rising in 2017-18, the cost is expected to dip to just under $1 million in 2019-20, after which the costs will be fully covered by a separate, existing fund.

The spending plan also includes a few other blockbuster compromises that would have been next to impossible to broker several years ago, when a two-thirds vote was still needed to pass the budget and the state was still in a huge fiscal hole created by the Great Recession. Lawmakers were forced to cut education and social services to the bone.

Over several weeks of talks, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon convinced Brown to boost spending not just for welfare, but also for child care and affordable housing programs. And the governor talked the Legislature's top Democrats into the $2 billion rainy-day-fund deposit he wanted to prepare California for the next recession, which he says is looming.

Sen. Jim Nielson, R-Gerber, thanked Brown for insisting on such a hefty deposit, which brings the total size of the state's reserves to a record $8.5 billion. But in the end, Nielson said, he was too nervous about the consequences of the modest new spending Democrats wanted to vote yes.

"It simply went further than I would have hoped,"

said Nielson, vice chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, had the opposite reaction to the spending plan.

"We know a downturn is before us. We don't know how soon or how deep," said Leno, who has chaired the committee for the last six years. "But this state will never be as prepared as it is now."

In another victory for low-income families, the budget increases funding for child care and preschool programs by more than $530 million. Over four years, that money will finance 9,000 new preschool slots and cover the cost of workers' salaries as the state's new $15-an-hour minimum wage law is phased in.

It also sets aside $400 million for affordable housing, a priority that Rendon shares with his predecessor, Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego.

The funds will be appropriated later this year once the Legislature approves a version of Brown's "by right" zoning proposal, which would limit local governments' say over proposed development that includes affordable housing units. It has drawn opposition from localities.

(c)2016 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)