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State Senate budget plan would shift responsibilities, money to counties

June 21, 2010 |  1:30 pm

State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg announced an ambitious plan Monday to get California out of the business of providing billions of dollars worth of public safety, welfare and health services, instead giving counties the money to run those programs. Several tax levies, including a new oil tax, would pay for the transition.

Flanked by fellow Senate Democrats and two county officials, he hailed the proposal as a way to restore trust in government and help get California “off the deficit roller coaster.”

“We’re all tired, frankly, of propping up this structure which, in my view, does not work for the people of California,” Steinberg said. The public, he said, does not know what level of government provides what services – and who to hold accountable when the system falters. The proposal would bring government “closer to the people,” he said.

To pay for the plan, Steinberg (D-Sacramento) would impose a new a tax on oil, delay corporate tax breaks and cancel a scheduled cut in the vehicle license fee. In exchange for the money, the multi-part plan would place counties on the hook for many services California currently provides.

Those include monitoring juvenile parolees, providing drug rehabilitation treatment for Medi-Cal patients, keeping some low-level criminals in local jails instead of state prisons and providing some services for the aging. Counties’ share of welfare-to-work programs would grow from 2.5% to 25%.

How much the proposal would save the state – California faces a $19.1-billion budget deficit in the coming fiscal year – was unclear. Steinberg said it would cut that figure to a smaller number, though he gave no specifics.

State and local governments in the Golden State have often been at odds in tough fiscal times, as California has looked to either take money from or shift more responsibility to cities and counties.

"We’ve been in a defensive mode in the last couple years," said Ryan Alsop, an assistant chief executive for Los Angeles County. But he said the restructuring plan "is something that we welcome," as long as "any realignment of programs needs to come with long-term sustainable funding."

That funding -- through new taxes -- could prove to be a serious obstacle for the proposal. It would require GOP votes for passage, and Republican lawmakers have insisted tax increases not be part of the budget package.

The proposed overhaul of county-state government relations comes with just 10 days left before the new fiscal year begins. Mention of that deadline brought laughs to Monday’s news conference, as lawmakers already appear resigned to missing that mark.

“I don’t want to unduly raise expectations,” Steinberg said.

-- Shane Goldmacher in Sacramento

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