By Kevin Yamamura
Published: Sunday, May. 20, 2012 – 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Sunday, May. 20, 2012 – 8:30 am

Legislative Democrats aren’t organizing a bake sale just yet, but they say they will desperately search for cash in the coming weeks to avoid the most severe cuts proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Saying the state’s budget deficit has risen from $9.2 billion to $15.7 billion, the Democratic governor has proposed more cuts to programs that serve the state’s poorest residents.

Brown has described it as a “day of reckoning” and wants his fellow Democrats to slash as much as possible before he asks voters to hike taxes on sales and high-income earners in November.

But Democrats signaled immediately that they plan to block some of the deepest cuts to welfare, child care and college scholarships for low-income students.

“We will scour the cupboards, look behind the pots and underneath the cushions, doing everything we can do to see if there’s some opportunity to reduce the extent to which we have to make these cuts,” said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento.

Democratic lawmakers say they have cut enough in the wake of the recession and that Brown’s proposals would result in homelessness, even death.

“To me, a cut that you know may result in the difference between life and death, and a cut that will increase homelessness, it’s our obligation to avoid those cuts,” said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, referring to proposed cuts in welfare grants.

Several Democrats said they want to “buy out” Brown’s cuts with creative ideas but offered few specifics. In the past, that has meant one-time accounting maneuvers, fund shifts and inventive changes that often fall short.

The governor insists the cuts are necessary to solve California’s budget problem not just this year, but in future years. Told that Democrats want to “buy out” his cuts, Brown responded, “With other cuts?”

“The key to true budget balance (is) ongoing cuts, and they are the most difficult, but also absolutely indispensable,” Brown said.

Besides his need to balance the budget, the governor has ample political motivation to persuade Democrats to approve as many cuts as possible, said Dan Schnur, a former GOP consultant who serves as director of the University of Southern California’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.

“Brown seems to understand the voters don’t trust state government with their money, so he’s been trying to find a way, whether through pension reform or cuts in these areas, to regain some fiscal credibility with them,” he said.

Since 2007-08, lawmakers have cut monthly grants and reduced the time limit in the state’s welfare-to-work program, CalWORKs. The maximum grant for a family of three fell from $723 to $638 a month. Adults cannot receive benefits after four years, rather than five.

The state has slashed child care for low-income parents by imposing stricter income-eligibility requirements and cutting funding to child care providers.

California still has a disproportionate share of the nation’s welfare cases, because of the state’s demographics – a large share of younger, poorer residents – and the state provides aid for children after their parents exhaust eligibility.

But Democrats say cuts have been too fast and too severe. Brown now proposes to revamp the CalWORKs program by cutting off aid after two years rather than four for parents who do not seek work, training or education. The plan would save $880 million.

“We recognize that we’re going to have to make some cuts,” said Sen. Curren Price, D-Inglewood. “But we think these areas have already been cut to the bone. And so we’re going to be looking for ways to increase revenues. Taxes are certainly one way. Taking a look at some other loopholes, seeing how we can shift funds around.”

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