By Jack Chang
jchang@sacbee.com The Sacramento Bee
Published: Monday, Feb. 8, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

Ronald Reagan singled out what he called a “welfare queen” for abusing government aid. Newt Gingrich pushed welfare reform as part of his Contract With America.

Now, Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner, the top Republican candidates for California governor, are bringing back welfare as a key issue in their quest for primary votes. Welfare’s high-profile role in the race became clear last month when Whitman, the billionaire former CEO of eBay, unveiled her first issue-specific radio ad.

“Some people worry that we’re creating a welfare state,” Whitman says at the start of the spot. “The fact is, California is the welfare state.”

Poizner, another ultra-wealthy former Silicon Valley CEO, has made tightening welfare rules a key part of his plan to balance the state budget. Like Whitman, Poizner proposes cutting lifetime welfare limits to two years from five.

“Welfare is an example of where we’re spending, in my opinion, several billion more than we should because we don’t enforce the work rules and our benefit structure is too high,” Poizner said in an interview. “I just don’t think it should be a magnet.”

Whitman declined to participate in an interview on the issues in the governor’s race.

The candidates’ decisions to highlight welfare match public opinion polls that have shown Republican voters particularly dislike aid programs.

In a June 2008 Field Poll, Republicans picked public assistance as the top spending area they’d be willing to cut compared with four other areas, such as higher education and health care. Only 13 percent of Democrats chose public aid as the category they’d be most willing to cut.

“At least among Republican voters, it’s not tricky to talk about welfare cuts,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. “There’s one basic difference between the parties, and that’s Republicans are a lot less likely to spend money on social programs than Democrats.”

Welfare advocates point out that, until the recession, state welfare rolls had already been declining. The state’s caseload has since climbed to 540,475 in September from a low of 454,956 in July 2007.

“CalWORKs (the state welfare program) has been a shrinking program, not a growing program,” said Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California. “The strong insinuation that CalWORKs is a big contributor to the budget deficit is completely wrong.”

The CalWORKs program is budgeted at $5.3 billion for the next fiscal year, with about half of that coming from federal sources and the other half paid by the state and counties, according to the state Department of Social Services. General fund expenditures proposed for the next fiscal year amount to $82.9 billion.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has already proposed making cuts to CalWORKs that include lowering grant levels and eliminating aid to legal, non-citizen immigrants who have lived in the country for less than five years.

In the radio ad, Whitman argues that all recipients should be required to work, saying, “If they don’t, they lose their benefits.” Asked why Whitman used welfare for her campaign’s first issue-specific ad, press secretary Sarah Pompei answered, “There will be many different proposals for how to accomplish these goals” of cutting spending.

Poizner has estimated that his plan for overhauling CalWORKs and reducing caseloads would save the state $3.35 billion over 18 months. The plan would divert much of the federal money that the state receives for welfare to other social services.

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