A California legislative panel has advanced pieces of a compromise state budget, but agreement remained elusive Friday on key sticking points including how to spend more than $1 billion in new tobacco tax revenue.
A budget conference committee voted Thursday to boost spending on social services and expand a tax credit for the working poor. The panel also approved money for 1,500 new University of California students while placing restrictions on the UC Office of the President following a scathing audit.
Democratic leaders and Gov. Jerry Brown face a June 15 deadline to work out their differences and have the full Assembly and Senate approve the budget. After that date, lawmakers will lose their pay until a budget is approved.
The committee rejected Brown's demand that lawmakers extend the cap-and-trade program, one of the state's high-profile initiatives to combat global warming, and said conversations are continuing.
The committee also sidestepped a plan for spending $1.2 billion in revenue from last year's voter-approved $2-per-pack increase in tobacco taxes. The money is earmarked for Medi-Cal, the state's low-income program for the poor.
Brown proposed using the money to cover normal growth in the program, freeing up general fund dollars that otherwise would've covered that cost.
The proposal angered doctors and dentists, who helped fund the campaign in support of the tobacco tax and thought much of the money would be used to increase their notoriously low payments for seeing Medi-Cal and Denti-Cal patients.
"As Californians voted last November to invest in our Medi-Cal program multiple times, we need to continue to improve this pillar of our health system, as we fight against federal attacks," Anthony Wright, executive director of the advocacy group Health Access, said in a statement.
The committee did, however, vote to restore low-income medical and dental benefits cut during the Great Recession. The panel unanimously backed a plan to fully cover adult dental care beginning Jan. 1, at an annual cost of $73 million, along with eyeglasses beginning in 2020.
Lawmakers voted to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, which provides a cash injection for the working poor. Adults with three children are eligible if they earn less than $14,161 a year. Lawmakers opted to lift the threshold to about $22,000 and allow people with self-employment income to qualify.
"California should honor the dignity of so many single moms and working parents who are doing the work they can to make ends meet through self-employment and full-time minimum wage jobs," Josh Fryday, president of CalEITC4me, an outreach group, said in a statement.