California Poised to Fund Health Care for Undocumented Immigrants
By Chris Megerian and Melanie Mason
Immigrant children who are in the country illegally would receive public health care coverage in California under a budget deal announced Tuesday by Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders.
An estimated 170,000 immigrants 18 and younger could qualify, marking another victory for advocates and lawmakers who have worked to make the state more welcoming to unauthorized residents.
"With this budget, we're saying that immigrants matter, irrespective of who you are or where you're from," said Senate leader Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles.
Democratic leaders also won more money for state-funded child care, preschool and dental care as well as a boost for public universities. But they gave up other spending they wanted and acceded to Brown's revenue projection, which was about $3 billion lower than theirs.
The compromise _ the product of what Brown described as "strenuous negotiations" _ paves the way for a new budget to take effect July 1, the start of the next fiscal year. However, some work remains unfinished; the governor called for special legislative sessions to address road repairs and public health care.
The expansion of health care coverage to qualifying immigrant children would begin in May 2016, costing $40 million in the new budget and an estimated $132 million annually after that.
Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, who pushed for the change, described it as a "modest investment" that would prevent children from receiving their health care solely in emergency rooms.
"California once again paves the way while Washington, D.C., continues to create roadblocks for these communities," Lara said.
The decision was denounced by Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports strict enforcement of immigration laws.
"This is just one more example of California paying huge bills for its continued efforts to accommodate illegal immigration," Mehlman said.
"It forces the taxpayers to pay money to provide health care that could be going to other vital needs in the state," he added, "and God knows there are many vital needs going unmet in the state."
The final agreement was announced a day after the Legislature approved $117.5 billion in general fund spending, $2.2 billion more than Brown wanted. Continuing talks produced a final plan of $115.4 billion, only slightly larger than Brown's original proposal.
A series of shuffles _ such as adjusting a health care cost estimate, adding restrictions to a scholarship program and consolidating some administrative functions _ freed up enough money for lawmakers to obtain higher funding in other areas.
"This is a sound and well-thought-out budget," Brown said.
Under the plan, the California State University system would receive a $97 million increase, and the University of California system would get an extra $25 million, two investments aimed at boosting enrollment.
The blueprint has an additional $265 million _ more than half of what lawmakers wanted, for preschool and state-subsidized child care. And payments to dentists who serve poor patients would be restored to pre-recession levels at a cost of $30 million.
The deal also preserves other programs sought by both Brown and lawmakers, including $380 million for an earned income tax credit that would allow the working poor to keep more of their paychecks.
Other legislative proposals were jettisoned.
A broader increase in payments to physicians who treat the needy didn't make the cut. Neither did a plan to allow women on public assistance to receive higher benefits if they have additional children while on welfare. California currently bars such increases.
Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, who pushed for removal of the restriction, said she was "livid."
"I guess we're in the business of picking winners and losers," she said. "It seems poor people and their children always end up at the bottom."
Asked how the budget deal was struck, Brown described it as "a gradual unfolding of deeper understanding."
He didn't say whether he had threatened to veto the Legislature's budget.
"I don't issue threats," Brown said. "I engage in frank and honest conversations."
Lawmakers are expected to vote on the agreement Friday. The special legislative sessions, which could run concurrently with the regular session, will be held later this year to address remaining issues.
Brown wants to use the session on health care to revise and extend the state's tax on managed care plans to comply with federal regulations.
Without the tax, Brown said, California would lose a sustainable source of funding for public health care and in-home care for low-income elderly and disabled residents.
The second session would be geared toward finding new ways to pay for $59 billion in overdue road repairs. Lawmakers have discussed modifying the state gas tax or charging a new fee to fund improvements.
"One way or the other, we're going to have to find some solutions," Brown said.
Republican support would be needed to raise taxes or fees.
Senate Republican leader Bob Huff, R-San Dimas, criticized Democrats for considering such moves, saying that even though the state has a surplus, "they are back to the tax well looking for more money."
(Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.)
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