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Dec 24th
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Town Hall with Assemblymember Mark Stone

Mark StoneYou voted in favor of the 2013-14 state budget. What do you consider to be some of the positive and negative results of the budget that the state legislature passed last week?

This balanced, on-time, fiscally responsible budget fulfills many priorities of Californians. The legislature worked with Gov. Jerry Brown to ensure that the budget invests in Californians by better funding public schools, making college more affordable, and effectively implementing the federal healthcare law. It reflects a remarkable level of fiscal discipline in that it eliminates the structural deficit and provides for a rainy day fund that voters will have an opportunity to approve. 

Through the new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), we are improving educational outcomes for students by investing in our schools. All schools will receive additional funding, and over time, the budget will restore funding to levels before the worst cuts during the recession. Additionally, the state will provide additional funding for academic accountability considerations, ensuring that all of our schools serve all of our students, rather than letting some kids fall through the cracks. This accountability system will be created with schools, parents and teachers at the table—and the state will provide the funding to implement it. This LCFF helps put in place opportunities to better enhance and improve the educational outcomes for some of our most vulnerable youth.

I’m especially pleased to report some positive news for helping California’s most vulnerable residents. After implementing $4.7 billion in cuts since the 2008-2009 budget to the CalWORKS program, which is designed to help low-income families, this budget finally begins to do more good than harm for California’s needy families. This year’s budget includes a 5 percent increase in the maximum cash grant amount, which, while modest, is a step in the right direction. Every little bit counts when we’re talking about making sure families can meet their basic needs and children can remain safely at home. 

This budget also includes a provision that is modeled on legislation I introduced this year. Specifically, the budget increases the allowed maximum worth of a family’s vehicle while still being eligible for CalWORKs benefits. Currently, families can’t receive benefits unless they pass an income and asset test, including a “vehicle asset test,” meaning they can only own a car worth a very low dollar amount. This year’s budget doubles the allowed cash value of a family’s vehicle from $4,650 to $9,500. The current limit was set in 1996 and hasn’t been changed since then. This low limit, without any previous possibility of adjustment, makes it more difficult for parents to obtain and maintain employment. This has increased families’ time on aid, negatively impacting the state’s finances and hindering success for many CalWORKs families. This change in the allowed amount will still help many families keep their cars and get out of poverty.

Although I would have preferred to see greater restoration of important programs for our most vulnerable children, this budget takes a good step in helping restore some of the worst program cuts enacted in previous budgets. For instance, there is an additional $37 million for critical subsidized child care for working families. The budget also helps to soften the blow of federal sequestration by limiting cuts to important programs designed to improve the quality of early childhood education. Most importantly, the administration of our early care and education system will continue to be administered by the California Department of Education, instead of sending the funds to counties to administer programs individually. This not only helps maintain focus on providing access to early childhood education and development programs, but also ensures that we will continue to close the readiness gaps less fortunate and underrepresented children demonstrate upon entering kindergarten. These priorities have long been articulated by the Assembly and I am pleased to see that our efforts have been recognized in this budget.

For foster youth, we have extended the moratorium on the licensing of new group homes, and we’ve restricted group home placements for children in foster care under age 12. This will help continue the state’s focus on providing nurturing, family-like environments for our most vulnerable children, which helps lead to better opportunities for foster youth to be reunited with their families or be adopted.  We also protected our foster youth in the educational system by improving the ability of school districts to serve the special needs of these students.

Although this budget included many positive features for middle class and needy families, there remains room for improvement, especially with regard to protecting our environment. I am most frustrated with the diversion of $500 million in cap-and-trade funds to the General Fund.  I am reluctant to shore up the budget with borrowed funds that were reserved for projects to reduce greenhouse emissions. While the Governor argued that too few projects were “shovel-ready” to implement the goals of AB 32, he does not need to look further than local governments to find such projects.  Local economies would have benefited, and emissions would have been reduced more quickly, had the money been allocated there. Further, this sets a bad precedent for these funds in future budget years.  We can reduce emissions more efficiently when we reinvest the money from cap-and-trade programs to energy efficiency and conservation programs, especially at the local level. 

In spite of these concerns, I feel that my voice, and by extension, the voices of my constituents in the 29th Assembly District, was heard throughout the budget process. I’m pleased to report that it was a more transparent process than in past years. As a freshman legislator, I am heartened by my ability to weigh in and be heard on your readers’ behalf. 

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