What if courts block Brown’s proposed state budget cuts? 

Hundreds of developmentally disabled Californians and their parents and care providers packed the Capitol on Thursday to angrily or tearfully denounce Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2011-12 budget.

It was the latest outpouring of opposition to cuts in health and welfare services he says are needed to close a chronic deficit. Testifying en masse at almost daily legislative hearings, advocates for the poor, the aged and the disabled have hammered on two themes:

  • Billions of dollars in service cuts would imperil recipients’ lives, force them into expensive nursing homes, emergency rooms and even jail cells or, in the case of child care, make it tougher for parents to hold jobs; and ...
  • Many cuts would run afoul of federal entitlement laws and/or court decisions and would be tied up in litigation for months, if not years.

Brown seems unmoved by the first argument. He said the cuts are part of a much-needed “retrenchment” in spending that consistently outstrips revenues.

But what about the second argument about the cuts’ legality? Brown appears to be more concerned on that point. This week, he personally asked U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for federal waivers to allow the state to reshape federally supported “safety net”services and said Sebelius is “receptive, but it isn’t worked out yet.”

A day later, Brown told reporters, “What I proposed, we believe are both legal, they’re practical and I think they’ll result in a better deal for the taxpayers,” adding, “I understand there will be lawsuits ... but we think that each of the cuts we made are [legally] viable.”

It’s no small matter. Safety-net cuts and shifts represent, by far, the biggest chunk of his plan’s permanent spending reductions to narrow the budget gap — which is why, of course, the pushback from program advocates is so vociferous.

Perhaps more importantly, they would demonstrate to the voting public that Brown and a Legislature dominated by liberal Democrats are serious about reducing spending.

That, he hopes, would make voters more willing to approve the second half of his plan, the five-year extension of $11.2 billion a year in temporary taxes that are now expiring.

But what if Brown and legislators defy the opposition and whack safety-net services, thus impressing voters who respond by approving the tax increase, only to see the cuts later blocked in the courts?

That would obviously punch a big hole in the budget, but it would also feed suspicions that it was merely a cynical ploy to fool voters.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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Dan Walters

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