Showdown looms over governor’s proposed CalWORKS cuts

As Gov. Schwarzenegger is proposing cuts in the state’s welfare system to try to bring the state’s budget into balance, some Democrats are proposing an expansion of CalWORKS.

Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Contra Costa, is carrying a measure that would allow applicants to community college to receive credit toward their welfare-to-work requirement.

Torlakson’s SB 42 has re-emerged from the ashes of last year’s SB 1825, which was carried by Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, and vetoed by Schwarzenegger. “While I support providing low-income parents access to educational opportunities, I am unable to support Senate Bill 1825, as it weakens California’s focus on employment and may place our state at higher risk for millions of dollars in federal penalties,” the governor wrote in his veto message last year. “Work is key for families to transition out of poverty [and] SB 1825 is a step in the wrong direction.”

To receive CalWORKS benefits, recipients are required to engage in welfare-to-work activities. Under current law, welfare recipients who have applied to four-year universities receive welfare-to-work credit. Now, Torlakson would like to extend that to incoming community-college students.

But this may not be the year to start expanding welfare coverage. The governor has introduced more than $400 million in cuts, and the legislative analyst has warned that revenue projections in the governor’s budget are overly optimistic. Meanwhile, state Controller John Chiang also has cautioned that revenues are coming in below previously estimated levels, which could add to the state’s multibillion-dollar deficit.

Last year, the bill cleared the Legislature with some bipartisan support. Eight Republican senators voted for the bill last year, and five GOP Assembly members voted in favor of the measure. Torlakson’s office points out that the cost of the bill is relatively small. They say that the bill would only cost the state about $200,000 per year.

“In a much larger context, the costs are minimal compared to the overall savings of helping a family off welfare,” said Torlakson spokesman Tom Martinez.

But the bill is likely to be overwhelmed by the larger debate about how to balance the state budget this summer. Democrats accuse the governor of trying to balance the state’s books on the back of the most vulnerable, while Republicans say the state needs to make cuts to begin to get its fiscal house in order.

Sen. Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, was critical of several of the proposed budget cuts. Ducheny would not speculate on the motives behind the governor’s budget, but said some of the cuts were seemed arbitrary. “They just needed some place to cut,” she said.

Senate Republican leader Dick Ackerman, R-Orange County, said these cuts are long overdue, and hinted legislative Republicans may seek even deeper cuts. “We’ve been making recommendations on various welfare cuts for a number of years. The proposals that [Schwarzenegger] has put forth this year are a portion of those, and we will be supporting those.

“We need to continue to fine tune [our welfare system], even though some of our Democratic colleagues want to expand programs and benefits,” said Ackerman.
Shirley Washington, spokeswoman for the governor’s Department of Health and Human Services, would not comment on Torlakson’s bill, saying only that, “the governor’s budget proposal as it relates to CalWORKS

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