Stop the budget grandstanding

Astonishing as it might seem, the entire $131 billion proposed California budget for 2006-07 is apparently being held up by a dispute over a comparatively miniscule $24 million line item, even though all but $1.8 million of it has already been agreed upon by Gov. Schwarzenegger and the Democratic legislative majority.

This absurd foot-dragging is not about money. Rather, it is a blatantly obvious opportunity for both parties to beat their chests over favorite sound bites on the hot-button issues of illegal immigration and children’s health care.

The governor went against his own Republican Party by budgeting $22 million for county health insurance programs that cover all children, including children from undocumented families. The Democrats like this, but they insist on adding another $1.8 million as a first step toward qualifying all low- and moderate-income children for state health care programs.

Spending $1.8 million to improve the health of disadvantaged children sounds benign enough. But, as press reports have noted, it would open the door to hundreds of millions of dollars in costs by 2008.

The Republican legislative leadership has insisted there will be no GOP votes to pass a budget that doesn’t specifically stop undocumented families from receiving any benefits. This would block the two-thirds approval necessary for budget passage.

“For me, we should not politicize the children and drag them into this,” Gov. Schwarzenegger said Thursday. He said that was why he proposed $22 million for county health programs that do not differentiate between children who are here legally or illegally.

Crossing party lines like this is the kind of bipartisanship that Schwarzenegger promised voters when he first sought the governorship in 2003. It will also make it more difficult for Democratic opponents to continue painting him as beholden to big business.

Resolution of the current stalemate seems almost embarrassingly simple. Gov. Schwarzenegger is right in saying that California cannot now afford to make more children eligible for state health programs given the huge potential rise in costs.

But today’s California can well afford $22 million for much-needed county children’s health services. And it should not be the state’s task to tell counties which children they can and cannot help. The Republicans need to back their governor on this issue.

There is still room for legitimate debate on reducing the $3 billion-plus deficit currently built into the upcoming budget. But the two parties are apparently close enough so that there should be no excuse for failing to pass a new budget by the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

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