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Reformed Reform

Welfare takes new shape during final negotiations.

By Eric Johnson

AFTER YEARS of partisan gridlock, months of bitter debate in the Assembly, and weeks of last-minute haggling over details, lawmakers forged a compromise last week which will become California's new welfare law.

But the final welfare reform legislation looks somewhat different than the version that was on the table two weeks ago, when Metro's "The New Welfare State" hit the streets. The biggest changes came during final budget negotiations, when more than $450 million was stripped out of the proposal designed to help provide work to those now on welfare.

Two Silicon Valley state legislators who have been on different sides of the debate, Republican Assemblyman Jim Cuneen and Democratic Senator John Vasconcellos, both found reasons to vote for the measure, which passed by an overwhelming majority in both houses.

Although he supported the bill, Vasconcellos bemoaned the fact that the jobs-creation package, which he called "the key to making this work," was gutted. Vasconcellos went on to sharply criticize Gov. Pete Wilson for treating welfare recipients "like bums and sluts who have to be punished and whipped into shape."

Vasconcellos, who spearheaded the jobs effort, said that even in this boom economy, there aren't enough jobs for the 500,000 people who will lose their cash benefits over the next 18 months. He said he believes it may be possible for the state to provide job-creation money before anyone is hurt by the current law.

"My hope is that, if the economy stays healthy, the money comes before the end of the year," he said.

Cuneen said he sees the jobs issue as separate from welfare reform.

"This is just a first step," he said. "We'll have to see what the consequences are. If it turns out that the economy fails to provide the jobs, if [Vasconcellos] is proved correct, then we can deal with that. But it is not essential to getting this reform in place."

Sandy Brown, an organizer with the statewide Campaign for Budget Fairness, said it is already clear that there will not be enough jobs to go around.

"This is a system that is designed to fail," Brown said. "There are simply not enough jobs--that's why we have unemployed people, and that's why we have a welfare system. Forcing people off of welfare into a labor market where there aren't any jobs goes against any kind of moral ethic."

As reported in these pages two weeks back, the proposal which the Assembly sent the governor called for a $25 million project to create work for the 500,000 welfare recipients who will become ineligible for cash benefits in 18 months. At press time, that number has been cut to $5 million. Another $50 million "Infrastructure Bank," which would have given counties money to staff libraries and repair roadways with the help of folks coming off the welfare rolls, was stripped out of the bill completely.

The biggest and most innovative proposal in the welfare package, the $350 million Linked Deposit Fund, was dropped in an "inactive" file. That bill, which was not affected by the last-minute budget crunch in the Capitol, would have taken money out of the state's savings and made it available to private companies in the form of loans if they agreed to hire and train welfare recipients.

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From the August 14-20, 1997 issue of Metro.

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