Monday, April 11, 2011 |Following up on a pledge it made when Gov. Jerry Brown proposed deep cuts to offset a $26.6 billion state budget deficit, the Orange County Children and Families Commission filed suit last week to stop him from taking $51 million from programs it runs on behalf of the county’s children.

The suit’s premise is that it is illegal to take the money from Orange County programs, and a total of $1 billion statewide, because the source of the funds is the First 5 program, which was created by voters in 1998 specifically to aid children from birth until age five.

But in case the lawsuit doesn’t succeed, commission members have begun discussing how to shave a variety of programs that provide health and wellness care for children during their first years of life.

“The Children and Families Commission is going to have to reinvent itself over the next 30 days,” said Supervisor Bill Campbell, chairman of the Children and Families Commission.

The First 5 program uses funds generated by a 50-cent per pack tax on cigarettes that voters approved when they passed Proposition 10. Voters reaffirmed the program two years ago when they rejected a plan by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to use the money to offset the deficit. Schwarzenegger unsuccessfully tried again last year to take millions from the program.

Counties use the money for services like school nurses and dental treatment for children as well as specialized care for children with specific disabilities, like autism. The children often, but not always, come from low-income families.

Kelly Pijl, the commission’s assistant executive director said some programs also receive federal funding, like those connected to MediCal, which may make it possible for them to “limp along” until full funding is restored while others that rely solely on Prop 10 money may not survive.

“I certainly don’t want to be fatalistic or ‘the sky is falling,’” said Pijl. “It’s pretty low though.”

Among programs that could be hard hit are the services for autistic children at all income levels and help for parents whose children have developmental or behavioral problems, said Dr. Joseph H. Donnelly, director of CHOC/UCI Neurodevelopmental Programs. Donnelly said it’s even possible some of those programs would close altogether.

The Children and Families program is one of many services that will be cut or eliminated under Brown’s current budget proposal and more drastic measures that may follow.

Brown made a campaign promise last year when he was running for governor to ask voters to approve a five-year extension to a series of temporary tax increases on vehicles, sales and state income taxes. The income from the taxes would be used to help cut the deficit.

But he needed the support of four Republicans in the Legislature to put the measure on the ballot in June and failed to get it. He’s still pushing for a special election, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, but the earliest it now could be held is the fall.

In the meantime, he’s traveling the state trying to drum up voter support for his plans.

Everything Open to Cuts

The Children and Families Commission filed its law suit last Tuesday, but it could take six months to go to trial and 18 months to two years after that for all appeals to be exhausted, according to the commission’s nurses.

The new fiscal year begins July 1 and that’s when the diversion of funds will begin.

“Diverting Proposition 10 funds is not only illegal, but harmful to Orange County’s youngest children during a time when safety net services are extremely strained,” Campbell said in a statement read at the Children and Families Commission meeting Wednesday.

Nonetheless, Campbell said that officials have come to accept that “programs that we’re funding now will have to be cut back.”

Instead of spending $55 million next year as originally planned, the commission earlier scaled back to $45 million. This week, they dropped the number another $10 million to $35 million. The rest of the $51 million that Brown wants to take would come from funds the commission had collected and set aside to be spent over the next five years.

At next month’s meeting, which is open to the public, commissioners will dive into the worst part, deciding exactly which contracts will be cut and by how much.

Campbell said the commission could decide to cut everything “40 percent across the board” or slice and dice contract by contract.

“That’s the hard work that’s going to occur over the next 30 days,” he said.

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