With the conclusion of “March Madness,” I pretty much proved that I don’t know a thing about college basketball. In the office pool, I staked $5 on the favorite, Duke University, to win the NCAA basketball tournament. Duke got beat early and the players went home to cram for final exams. The University of Maryland went on to stomp the competition. I surrendered my $5 to my victorious colleague across the hall. But because he refused to gloat loudly and persistently about his smashing victory and, thus, breaking Rule 1A in the “Manual on Sports Betting and Bragging Etiquette among Friends,” he may be disqualified from next year’s office pool. Besides, we don’t want him to win two years in a row.

But while I freely admit that I need more remedial education o the art of the fast break and the three-point shot, I have managed over the years – osmosis is a beautiful thing – to pick up a few tips about the politics of the state budget. The osmosis learning curve says that first, the state budget will be late. Based on the performance of the California Legislature over the last ten years, there is probably an 80% change that the Budget Act will not be signed into law by July 1, the constitutional deadline. And with a $17.5 billion budget deficit, ad many difficult decisions to be made, the polyester-clad bookies in Reno are bumping up the odds and saying that it could be “a long and hot summer.” Second, the legislative leadership will continue the practice of not releasing over $100 million in federal funds for important senior programs until the state budget is approved.

Let’s focus on this second axiom of the state budget. Every year, through the Older Americans Act, federal funds are appropriated to the state for senior programs. The money flows from the federal government through the California Department of Aging to 33 Area Agencies on Aging (AAA) around the state. The AAAs contract with local agencies to provide services such as Meals on Wheels, transportation to medical appointments, and Adult Day Health Care.

But serious problems are created when the Legislature and Governor are unable to pass a state budget on time. The Department of Aging is not permitted to allocate a dime of the $100 million in federal funds to local agencies. So while the money idly sits in a big vault in Sacramento, important programs like Meals on Wheels are halted and we stupidly push some senior citizens prematurely into expensive nursing homes.

In 1999, SB 657 (Ortiz) was introduced to solve this problem. The bill would have provided that, in the absence of the enactment of the annual Budget Act by July 1, an amount continuously appropriated from federal funds to the Department of Aging would continue the programs operated by the local Area Agencies on Aging. This bill would have ensured that vital services to frail elderly persons were not interrupted simply because the politicians in Sacramento could not agree on a state budget. The bills was based on a law enacted the previous year, AB 561 (Scott), Statutes of 1998, which temporarily continues to pay Medi-Cal, AIDS drug assistance, and developmental services bills when the budget is delayed.

But while SB 657 passed the first policy committee it died in the Senate Appropriations Committee on what is called the “Suspense File.” Ostensibly, bills are placed on the “Suspense File” because they cost more than $150,000 and the legislators want to wait until the Budget Act is enacted to see if the state can afford the costs of the bill. Generally speaking, this makes sense. However, SB 657 would not cost the state any money. The author merely wanted to pass on federal money to local agencies.

In the case of SB 657 and other bills, the “Suspense File” is essentially used to kill politically sensitive bills in the dark and without a vote. It’s sneaky and cowardly. But the standing rules of the Legislature do provide that “a bill may be taken off the suspense file and heard…by a vote of a majority of the members of the committee present and voting.” Did anyone stand up for poor seniors? Not a single Senator took advantage of the standing rules and made a motion to take SB 657 off the “Suspense File.” It is shameful for a legislator to sit on his or her hands in circumstances like these. I can see why Mark Twain once said, “man is the only animal that blushes, or needs to.”

The main reason that SB 657 died under the cover of darkness is that the legislative leadership believes that they need to hold senior programs hostage to achieve their larger goals in the annual budget battle. It takes a two-thirds vote of each house, 54 votes in the Assembly and 27 votes in the State Senate, to pass the Budget Act. And it has not been an easy task in the past to round up all the necessary votes when the budget bill has been crafted with tax increase assumptions and billions of dollars of new program spending. But it is just plain wrong to use federal funding for the frail elderly as political leverage in the debate over the budget.

But the battle is not over. AB 2552 (Daucher), which is identical to SB 657, has passed the first policy committee and has been referred to the Assembly Appropriations Committee, giving this constructive proposal another change. However, without a significant influx of courage, AB 2552 will be placed on the committee’s “Suspense File” and die there. Or, an Assembly member will stand up and demand an up and down vote on the merits of AB 2552. Will legislators on this committee stand up and be counted?

Benjamin Disraeli, British Prime Minister during the 1870s, once said, “success if the child of audacity.” We will soon see whether any of the Assembly members on the Assembly Appropriations Committee will have the courage to demand a fair, up or down vote on AB 2552. It is their choice on whether it is right to hold poor seniors hostage during the budget battle.

April 2002

Postscript: AB 2552 (Daucher) died in Assembly Appropriations Committee under the same circumstances as other similar bills in the past.