By Susan Ferriss
Published: Sunday, May. 30, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 3A

As he stares into the abyss of a $19.1 billion state budget shortfall, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is urging Californians to consider an earth-shifting governmental move.

To help social services such as child welfare and elder care avoid massive cuts, he wants to transfer more responsibility for those programs from the state to counties.

“If anybody thinks that we can triage our way through another chapter of the state budget, I wholeheartedly disagree,” Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, said in an interview.

“The argument will be made that restructuring, realignment is too complicated,” he said. “But compared to what? I don’t see a pathway that doesn’t involve significant restructuring of what the state should do, and what other entities of government should do.”

Such change would put more control over programs’ design and innovation in local hands, with the state still giving counties a portion, if not most, of the revenue to finance programs.

In the process, some legislators also want to make it easier for county residents, by majority vote, to choose to tax themselves to help fund those services.

San Francisco Democrat Mark Leno, for example, proposes Senate Bill 10, which would allow counties to adopt a local vehicle licensing fee of no more than $10 with the approval of two-thirds of the members of a board of supervisors and a simple majority of county voters. The measure is in the Assembly now.

Steinberg said he’s identified some of the kinds of social programs that could be shifted more to counties – senior care and children’s services among them – but has no details to disclose less than three weeks from the Legislature’s June 15 deadline to approve a budget.

If Californians have doubts about the logic of realignment, he said, they should consider a 2007 legislative change to juvenile justice programs.

It costs a staggering $225,000 today to imprison and educate one young offender for one year in a state juvenile center.

The 2007 change gave more responsibility to counties to hold young offenders, but also gave them $100 million in bond money to build more housing and state block grants to pay for individuals’ costs.

County costs to hold young offenders are at least 50 percent less than the state’s, said Drew Soderborg, a juvenile justice expert at the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.

“If four kids stay at the county level,” he said, “then that saves the state $1 million a year.”

Since 2007, the state has saved money by closing three detention centers, and the average number of juveniles in state custody has fallen to 1,517 from 3,751 in 2005.

The promise of realignment is real, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which has recommended in multiple reports that legislators consider choosing certain programs to shift to more county control.

Counties already do some work that previously belonged to the state.

Nearly 20 years ago, during a previous fiscal crisis, the state and counties forged their existing arrangement, in which counties provide hands-on management of many social programs and the state provides much of the money.

“We think we can run things better,” said Paul McIntosh, executive director of the California State Association of Counties.

But “we’re gun-shy” about taking on more responsibility, he said, because financing can be volatile.

In 1991, legislators and Gov. Pete Wilson first shifted mental health programs to counties and began financing them with a portion of vehicle license fees. Then they shifted other social programs and adopted a half-cent sales tax to pay for them.

The recession has clobbered counties by drying up that revenue, McIntosh said.

“We need iron-clad agreements,” he said, if counties are to take on more management of services.

Right now, he said, counties are terrified of budget proposals Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger put on the table this month to address some of the $19.1 billion deficit.

The governor proposed ending CalWORKS, the welfare-to-work program, slashing in-home care, subsidized child care and gutting nearly all state funding for county mental health programs.

That’s an “evisceration” of the realignment deal that was cut back in 1991, McIntosh’s group protested in a letter this month to legislative leaders.

Steinberg said his idea of realignment isn’t to “dump” more duties on counties with no state money. But he wants to find ways to make the programs more efficient.

“You have the advantage of better program outcomes, lower costs and the opportunity to reduce the size of the state government,” Steinberg said. “That should be appealing to Republicans because ultimately this shrinks the size of state government.”

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