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Hearing on improving life for boys & men of color

Lawmakers will gather in Oakland this Friday to take testimony on ways to improve the life chances for young men of color through successful education, employment and juvenile justice programs.

Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Alameda, will chair a field hearing of the Assembly Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color from 1 to 4 p.m. Friday in the first-floor auditorium of the Elihu Harris State Office Building, 1515 Clay St. Other committee members include Luis Alejo, D-Salinas; Steven Bradford, D-Gardena; Nathan Fletcher, R-San Diego; Warren Furutani, D-Gardena; Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park; Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield; Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco; Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia; Henry Perea, D-Fresno; Manuel Perez, D-Coachella; and Anthony Portantino, D-La Canada Flintridge.

Among those testifying will be Alameda County Health Care Services Agency Director Alex Briscoe; Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth Executive Director Fania Davis; Alameda County Social Services Agency Director Lori Jones; East Bay Asian Youth Center Executive Director David Kakishiba; Alameda County Chief Probation Officer David Muhammad; and many others.

Research funded by the California Endowment has found African-American and Latino boys and young men are more likely to have poor heath outcomes than white boys and young men, with most of the differences directly related to their neighborhoods.

This will be the second in the committee’s year-long series of field hearings around the state.

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Of false dilemmas and hostage-taking

The oil-for-parks plan I wrote about earlier doesn’t seem to be the only, or biggest, false dilemma Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is setting up in his state budget proposal.

The governor’s plan relies on collecting $6.9 billion more in federal tax dollars, what he calls California’s “fair share” owed the state for faulty reimbursement formulas and federal mandates. He says California gets back only 78 cents on every tax dollar it sends to Washington, D.C. – a far lower rate than many states – and deserves much more considering its costs as an economic engine and a border state.

If the federal government won’t ante up, the governor says, he can entirely eliminate the CalWORKS welfare program, the IHSS program, and the Healthy Families low-cost medical insurance program for children, while freezing Cal Grants for higher education, eliminating funding for University of California and California State University enrollment growth and cutting state worker salaries by another 5 percent, among other measures – a wholesale shredding of the state’s social safety net and educational system.

But many governors before and including Schwarzenegger have tried and failed to reformulate the federal government’s support of California; to put all responsibility for this now on California’s Congressional delegation, especially in a time of national economic crisis, is passing the thus-far-unachievable buck. Remember when Arnold pledged to be “The Collectinator” way back in 2003, upon meeting with a President of his own party while the national economy was in far better shape? At the time, he was talking about $50 billion.

Bruce Cain, who directs the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and UC’s Washington Center, might’ve said it best when I talked to him in late 2006 as San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi was preparing to take over as Speaker of the House and named two Bay Area lawmakers to the powerful Appropriations Committee. Most federal spending is set by formula and isn’t easily changed, even by a change of leadership, he had said, so California wasn’t much more likely to get a significantly bigger slice of the budget pie now than it was before.

“You can’t expect to go from 79 cents on the dollar to 99 cents on the dollar because of this. You’re probably talking about maybe changing things by a couple of pennies,” Cain said at the time.

Other governors of both parties managed to better protect education, health and social services without the federal fix than Schwarzenegger has. Is he admitting his own failure? Is he merely creating a pretext for these draconian cuts he fully expects to make later in his final year in office, already knowing full well that the federal pot at the end of the rainbow isn’t likely to materialize?

Or is this a show of action-movie bravado, holding a gun to the head of California’s poor, elderly, disabled and students and hoping Congress will blink? And if it’s this, then isn’t it something the action-movie villain does, not the hero?

UPDATE @ 5:46 P.M.: I just spoke with Mary Beth Sullivan, executive director of the California Institute for Federal Policy Research, who agreed with Cain’s 2006 sentiments.

“Once you get into tweaking the formulas, you’re into whose ox gets gored,” she said – that is, reformulating to California’s benefit requires reformulating to some other state or states’ detriment, so it’s usually a slow, hard process with few returns. “All other governors tried it too…. It’s a laudable purpose because quite frankly if he gets it up to 80 cents on the dollar, that’s something, but is it realistic to think he can do it? I don’t think so.”

Congress might pass another stimulus bill with direct help for California and other budget-stricken states, she said, but like the first stimulus bill, that’ll be one-time funding, not a permanent reformulation. Beyond that, Congress is likely to start focusing on the national budget deficit, a process that might not be pretty for any of the states. So, she said, the best California should be hoping for is another one-time influx and maybe some tweaking around the edges.

That said, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer insists the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act already has made Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s data obsolete.

Boxer’s office put out a report today estimating that Recovery Act money, coupled with the fall in Californians’ federal tax revenues due to the struggling economy, made it so that California received $1.45 for every $1 in federal tax dollars it sent to Washington in Fiscal 2009; Schwarzenegger’s 78-cents-on-the-dollar figure is based on data from 2005, which economically speaking was a different world entirely.

I pointed out that ARRA funding is one-time-only, not a reformulation that supports California going forward. Boxer’s staff acknowledged this, but also noted ARRA funding is still pouring into California during this budget crisis; they ballparked that the state has received about $18 billion so far, and there’s another $37 billion still in the pipeline.

The overall message from Boxer’s camp: Congress and the Obama Administration have been helping California – and other states – a lot, but can’t be expected to cure all of Sacramento’s ills.

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Arnold’s privatization plan full of holes, foes say

County social services officials and consumer advocates say Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s eleventh-hour plan to privatize the health and human services eligibility process could be disastrous.

County Welfare Directors Association of California Executive Director Frank Mecca told reporters on a conference call this morning that his group’s members are “really disappointed in the governor and have very serious concerns about his proposal … which we believe will cost the taxpayers a fortune and more importantly is going to harm the most vulnerable, needy people in our state.”

Mecca said the plan seems to have “absolutely no accountability or oversight,” giving the governor’s administration a free pass on competitive bidding, conflict-of-interest and other controls. And while the governor says the plan could save California hundreds of millions of dollars over time, “the governor has never provided an analyis to anyone including the legislature showing a cost-benefit for his proposal,” he said.

The governor’s likening of programs such as MediCal to the already-privatized Health Families Program is “completely flawed, beyond simplistic – to call it apples to oranges is proably to paint it in more favorable light than it deserves,” Mecca said, as MediCal is immensely more complicated.

Celia Hagert, senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, Tex., said from what she’s seen of Schwarzenegger’s plan, there are “striking similarities between it and what was attempted in Texas… which would make me very nervous if I were a California policy maker.”

Texas in 2007 dissolved an $899 million contract with Accenture Ltd. that called for the company to run an integrated eligibility determination system for the state’s health and welfare programs. That system’s January 2006 rollout in two Texas counties had been “an immediate disaster” with thousands of children kicked off their health care, a huge food-stamp application backlogged and long wait times and many abandoned calls for those seeking aid, Hagert said. Texas is still recovering from the debacle, she said: “It’s a high price to pay, and very difficult to make up for mistakes once they’re made.”

A similar story is still unfolding in Indiana, where the initial rollout “has been riddled with so many problems that the state hasn’t been able to justify rolling it out in other areas,” said Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. Yet Schwarzenegger seems eager to relive the Texas and Indiana experiences, she said: “Unfortunately, I fear that it’s ‘Groundhog Day’ in California.”

Elizabeth Landsberg, a legislative advocate for the Western Center on Poverty & Law, said it’s “terrifying” to think that could happen here. “We’re not scared of modernization and we’re not scared of automation, but we need to do it right” rather than in last-minute, closed-door Big Five budget negotiations, she said, especially when 7 million Californians’ due process and privacy rights, not to mention their health and food, are at stake.

San Luis Obispo County Social Services Department Director Lee Collins said his county has one of the state’s highest work participation rates for people in the CalWorks welfare program because his staff starts helping people find work as soon as they begin the application process – something that will be lost if that process is privatized and automated. “These online eligibility programs really kind of hook them into public assistance and keep them there and don’t allow us to work with them as easily to achieve self-sufficiency,” Collins said, citing a case in which a $400 car repair helped keep one family from entering the CalWorks system for a lengthy stay.

“California has a bad enough track record in automation … We don’t need another Oracle,” he said, referring to the state’s 2002 cancellation of a $95 million contact with software maker Oracle after a state audit found it would cost the state an extra $41 million over time rather than save it $100 million as some had claimed.

Replied Schwarzenegger press secretary Aaron McLear: “This is another example of defenders of the status quo fighting against reform and against Sacramento living within its means. It is clear these individuals have no understanding of our proposal or the reforms that are necessary to end the fraud and abuse in these programs.”