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A Reader Writes by State Sen. Jim Battin: Deficit hits rural counties hard

May 26, 2002

"I am not going to balance the budget on the back of local government."

So pledged Gov. Davis in January in his State of the State address. Yet just four months later, the governor is breaking other promise with his newly revised budget plan.

Why? Because despite California's budget being in the black and running a multi-billion dollar surplus just a few years ago, when he took office, Gray Davis is now scrambling to close the largest budget deficit in the state's history — $23.6 billion — brought about by an unprecedented 37 percent growth in state spending over three years while failing to heed the warning signs of a state economy slowing down.

To bridge the gap, the governor not only wants to raise taxes, double the car tax and saddle the state with long-term borrowing, he wants to strip local governments of $1.2 billion in state assistance.

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If this spending plan is enacted as is, rural areas like Imperial County will suffer significant financial hits — in public safety, in health care and in efforts to move families from welfare to work.

Public safety is and always should be a top priority for Californians. Yet under the governor's revised budget, rural law enforcement will lose important resources, one of the most important being $38 million in county booking fees. When a local law enforcement officer arrests an alleged criminal and books him in jail, the city pays the county for the associated costs, and the state then reimburses the city's police chief. Rural law enforcement agencies that don't have the revenues available to larger urban areas will be the hardest hit. Nevertheless, the governor is proposing to eliminate this reimbursement altogether.

The war against drugs also would face a setback, as law enforcement efforts to combat methamphetamine production and distribution stands to lose $5 million in funding. Regrettably, rural areas have become the location of choice for criminals to cook meth — in homes, garages and remote areas. These proposed cutbacks will only make it harder for local law enforcement to rid rural communities of this menace.

County health and welfare departments stand to lose significantly. Gov. Davis is proposing to save $47 million in Medi-Cal — the state's no-cost health insurance for the poor — by cutting the rate the state pays doctors to treat Medi-Cal patients. But that will only compound a growing problem in rural areas — the shortage of doctors — already near crisis in the Imperial Valley. With many doctors already moving their practices to more profitable urban areas, lowering Medi-Cal reimbursement rates will compound this health-care problem by making it economically difficult for physicians to practice in rural areas.

Counties' efforts to move more families off public assistance also would be a casualty of this budget. As part of the state's landmark welfare reform of the 1990s, counties that reduce the number of welfare cases are rewarded financially. Paid to each deserving county by the state, this money can be used for education programs, public safety or programs to maintain a social safety net. But to pay for the deficit, Gov. Davis proposes taking these funds, totaling $289 million, away from counties.

Agricultural counties like ours will bear an additional financial burden. Many landowners in rural areas commit their farm acreage to agriculture production. Under the Williamson Act, landowners sign multi-year contracts to keep their land in agriculture — instead of development — in exchange for paying a lower property tax. Counties then make up the difference in property tax revenue through state reimbursements. But now, under Gov. Davis' budget, this $39 million funding would be eliminated, and counties would again be forced to come up with the difference, a significant hit to Imperial County.

Gov. Davis led us into this mess, and now he expects rural counties and local government to help bail him out. But rural areas shouldn't have to shoulder a disproportionate share of this burden — after all, they're not the reason the Davis deficit has nearly doubled in size since January. Republicans realize that the state faces difficult choices, and we still stand ready to sit down with the governor and start negotiations on these issues. And as we do, I will work to ensure that local governments and rural areas aren't unduly saddled with balancing a budget that is in deficit because of Gray Davis' fiscal mismanagement.

>> State Sen. Jim Battin represents the 37th Senate District which includes all of Imperial County, two-thirds of San Diego County and all of Riverside County. He serves as the vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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