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Western Center’s 2020 Legislative Roundup

2020 has been an unusual year, and the California legislative session was no exception — everyone from legislators to advocates had to adjust to the year’s challenges. Western Center started the year with 38 bills, but due to COVID-19, the Legislature significantly narrowed the number of bills. Even so, our advocates worked tirelessly to make sure people with low incomes are protected in California law, both during the pandemic and after it’s over. Here is a roundup of our sponsored and co-sponsored bills – those that passed, and some we will bring back next year.

Bills signed

ACCESS TO JUSTICE & PUBLIC BENEFITS

  • SB 144 (Mitchell)/AB 1869 (Budget Committee) to repeal state law authorizing specified criminal justice fees. The bill was parked and we moved the language into a trailer bill which repealed 23 of the criminal justice fees and expunged an estimated $16 Billion in outstanding debt associated with these fees. We achieved this historic, first in the country victory in coordination with the Debt Free Justice Coalition.
  • SB 1290 (Durazo and Mitchell) to require counties to stop collecting juvenile fees assessed before 2018. Our sponsored bill SB 190 stopped new debt from accumulating after that date, but did not eliminate existing debt. We are now the first state in the country to completely eliminate juvenile fees, which is an important step in state disinvestment in the carceral system.
  • SB 1409 (Caballero) requires the Franchise Tax Board to analyze and develop a plan to implement a “no return” tax filing pilot program to increase the number of claims of the CalEITC (California Earned Income Tax Credit).
  • SB 1065 (Hertzberg) to make specified changes to the CalWORKs Homeless Assistance Program. This bill is a favorite of public benefit legal services programs, and bookends about four years’ worth of legislation. Currently, domestic violence impacted CalWORKs recipients have 16 days of a hotel voucher and another 16 days if an application is still pending. SB 1065 extends the 32 days to everyone regardless of whether or not their application was approved. It also allows for the repeal of an asset test of $100 on the program; allows rental assistance to cover first, last, and deposit (rather than just first and deposit); allows a sworn statement by family to verify that a family is homeless rather than requiring county verification; and eliminates responsibility of the client to return to the county every four days to verify homelessness. It also improves disaster provisions by making eligibility conditioned upon a family becoming homeless as a direct and primary result of a state or federal declared disaster (including pandemic).
  • AB 3073 (Wicks) to require the Department of Social Services to issue guidance on the allowable practices to maximize CalFresh eligibility for people leaving jail or prison. Click here for a copy of a report we published on this topic.
  • AB 2325 (Carrillo) would restore Section 4007.5 of the Family Code with a 3 year sunset. This law was allowed to sunset last year, requiring child support order suspensions to be process manually for people who are incarcerated over 90 days, rather than have them automatically suspended. We worked in coalition on this bill with Truth and Justice in Child Support.

*Budget Bills we supported in coalition:

  • Ending exclusion of ITIN tax filers in CalEITC.
  • Institute Homestead Act protections against home loss during bankruptcy, and to establish a new state entity charged with licensing debt collectors and protecting consumers from abusive and illegal debt collection practices.
  • Restored CalWORKs assistance to the full 60 months permitted under federal law beginning in 2022.
  • Expanded the amount of child support payments CalWORKs families can keep from $50 a month to $100 a month for one child, and up to $200 for two or more children.

HEALTH

  • AB 2520 (Chiu) will increase access to public benefit programs by requiring doctors to complete forms and make it easier to obtain medical records for people in need of benefits programs.
  • AB 2276 (Reyes) would implement the California Auditor’s recommendations to increase blood lead screenings of children on Medi-Cal, as already mandated, and would require the Department of Public Health to update risk factors for evaluating risk of lead poisoning.

HOUSING

  • AB 3088 (Chiu) – AB 1482 Clean-Up: cleans up a number of confusing provisions in last year’s AB 1482, which limited rent increases and required just cause for evictions for tenants in multifamily properties over 15 years old. The bill was also amended during the last week of the legislative session to include a negotiated compromise around protecting tenants from eviction due to COVID through January 2021. That portion of the bill did not have sponsors.

A few bills that didn’t pass this year, but will be back in 2021

  • SB 1399 (Durazo) to address wage theft in California’s garment industry. It failed to make it out of the Legislature this year, in spite of a remarkable grassroots efforts by workers and advocates, and despite the fact that many of the workers experiencing wage theft are the same essential workers who have been sewing masks during the pandemic. Our coalition, led by LA’s Garment Worker Center, will bring the bill back next year.
  • AB 683 (Carrillo) to fix Medi-Cal’s restrictive asset test, which only applies to elders and people with disabilities, was held in committee despite broad community support. The current extremely low limit on allowable assets forces many of the same people most susceptible to COVID-19 to choose between health care and saving for an emergency. We will keep fighting to change that next year.
  • AB 826 (Santiago) would have provided emergency food assistance for Californians who are underserved by other food assistance programs. It was vetoed by the Governor on September 29th. Coverage of the veto can be found in CalMatters, Los Angeles Times, and Associated Press.

 

 

Update on the 2020-21 California Budget

On Monday, June 15th, the California Legislature met the state constitutional deadline for passing the 2020-21 budget by approving a new state budget. At this time, it is unclear if the Governor will support the budget, as no deal has been announced.

The Legislature approved this budget to uphold its constitutional duty, but it is not the final version. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented economic and public health uncertainty, and it has highlighted and exacerbated every existing inequity the state has failed to address. On top of the pandemic, social unrest calling for justice and equality for Black people has created a demand for leaders at every level to do things differently to dismantle entrenched white supremacy. If the Governor and Legislature simply ram through a budget deal, it will disproportionately harm Black people and other communities of color – as the economics of this state always do.

Forthcoming actions on this budget by the Legislature and Governor must take into account the needs of ALL Californians. The state’s economics must change — that includes increasing revenue through taxes on extreme wealth, and not making cuts to the programs millions of Californians rely on.

The budget approved by the Legislature rejects the vast majority of cuts proposed in the Governor’s May Revision budget, and includes several program expansions sought by advocates. The Legislature’s budget includes a trigger mechanism that is substantially different than the one proposed by the Governor. The trigger approved by the Legislature would not take effect until October 1, 2020, and will be “triggered” if the U.S. Senate and President fail to approve the $14 billion in assistance to states that the House of Representatives approved last month, on a bi-partisan basis.

To bring the budget into balance if federal leaders fail to deliver additional funding, the Legislature’s trigger would utilize reserve funding, deferrals of school funding, delays in previously approved spending, and state employee compensation reductions. It would not include most cuts to health programs, CalWORKs, SSI, IHSS, or programs for elders, which were proposed by the Governor. More details are available here.

The Legislature’s budget does include some program corrections, restorations, and expansions — notably, it ends the exclusion of immigrant workers with Individual Tax I.D. Numbers (ITINs) for the state Earned Income Tax Credit (CalEITC), restores the CalWORKs lifetime limit for adults to 60 months, provides another $350 million for homeless programs, and provides COVID-19 inspired CalFresh program simplifications and out-of-office technology advancements. All of these proposed changes are subject to ongoing negotiations, and until a “deal” is announced, we won’t know if they are in the final budget.

For health care, Western Center supports the Legislative budget’s rejection of cuts proposed in the Governor’s May Revision. The Legislature’s budget protects the health of California’s elders and communities of color in several ways. It does not reinstate the senior penalty by raising the Medi-Cal Aged & Disabled income limit, per last year’s budget. It rejects Medi-Cal benefit cuts and limits estate recovery, which disproportionately seizes homes from Black, Latinx, and API families. It also restores funding for the Black Infant Health program and for health navigators, and expands Medi-Cal to elders regardless of immigration status, though, Western Center would like to see that implemented sooner.

The Legislature’s budget recognizes the need to address the state’s homelessness crisis for unhoused community members, while also preventing additional homelessness. The budget allocates resources for traditional interventions, as well as funds to increase permanent housing options through the expansion of the low income housing tax credit, acquisition of hotels and motels which may appropriately serve as longer-term housing resources, and funds for the provision of legal assistance to low-income households that may be threatened with displacement or eviction. Given the magnitude of California’s housing challenges, which are compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing responses, we look forward to building on this foundation.

Watch: Financial help and safety nets during the pandemic

The panelists include:

  • Jessica Bartholow, policy advocate at Western Center on Law and Poverty
  • Cathy Senderling-McDonald, deputy executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California
  • Armando Hernandez, community programs director at The Unity Council in Oakland

Analysis of Federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act

Today, Congress passed a $2 trillion aid package, the third piece of federal legislation to address the COVID-19 pandemic. While this aid package includes some direct payments, expanded unemployment benefits, and additional help for low-income communities and the organizations that serve them, it was passed without important benefits and considerations raised to address concerns for the poorest Americans, especially those who are living in deep poverty, people who are disabled or advanced in age, and people who are undocumented. The bill invests significantly more government aid for corporate America than it does for the people hit hardest by the crisis. We are hopeful that the fourth aid package, expected to be worked on by leaders while Congress is in recess for the next couple of weeks, will address these significant gaps.

Western Center is working hard to make sure that both the missed opportunities in the CARES Act and additional investments are considered in the next COVID bill, and we look forward to working with California’s Senators and our Congressional Delegation to make sure that happens.

FINANCIAL SECURITY

The CARES Act expands eligibility and benefits for unemployment insurance, but it does not provide assistance for states to manage the cost of rising TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) caseloads, as was done in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). TANF, known as CalWORKs in California, serves the poorest families with children by providing them a basic needs grant, work training and support, homelessness prevention, and subsidized employment. It is critical that Congress and the President provide increased funding for state TANF programs in the fourth COVID package. Unlike many states, California spends the bulk of its combined federal and state welfare funds on direct cash aid and supports to families. Still, it only serves approximately 60 percent of eligible families with a benefit, and in most cases, isn’t even above half of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). As the needs increase and caseloads rise, the state may find it difficult to maintain the program at its current level. While California could receive about $1.6 billion for Supplemental Security Income recipients, and another $3.5 billion for the CalFresh (SNAP) caseload, we will need to keep working to make sure that national TANF investments include additional resources for low-income families to weather this storm.

The stimulus plan includes one-time income for many families and individuals, including very low income households. Unfortunately, the bill does not provide funding for households where one adult does not have a Social Security number (SSN). This means many households who pay taxes and may have American citizens or Legal Permanent Residents (LPR) in their households will receive nothing, despite the fact that payroll taxes are taken from their checks. Congress must address this gross inequity in the next COVID package; it will disproportionately deny aid to low-income workers of color, many of whom are essential workers on the front line of our service sectors.

For those families who are eligible, they will receive $1,200 payments for each adult and $500 for each child under the rebate program. These payments are available to households that filed a federal tax return for 2018 or 2019 even if the household payed no taxes. This is important because households with incomes under $25,000 are not required to file tax returns since they have no federal tax liability, so many do not routinely file taxes. As a result, many low-income families may not get a check unless they file a tax return by July 15th (the new extended tax filing deadline). This could prove challenging since many Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) centers and other tax preparers are closed during shelter in place, and most of them would have finalized 2020 activities as of April 15th, the regular tax filing deadline.

Currently, the IRS has information on its website on free options for filing taxes. The IRS is required to do a public education campaign on the rebates, which should provide more information on what people need to do to get the rebates. The federal government has discretion on how to get payments to people, so what the options are for non-filers (beyond filing a regular return) is yet to be determined and might differ for different groups. California will need to explore how it can assist low income households with filing returns so they can secure the resources needed to meet their basic needs. A summary of the rebate process can be found here.

Both the IRS and the state Franchise Tax Board (FTB) have long utilized tax intercepts to collect unpaid taxes from those getting tax refunds and Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). According to the Tax Policy Center, the IRS will not be intercepting rebate checks to collect unpaid taxes. The Center also reports that the IRS has temporarily suspended interception of EITC payments for unpaid federal taxes. Click here for more on the IRS policy changes.

And today, after receiving a request from the Debt Free Justice Coalition, Western Center, and our Legal Services Allies, the FTB has announced it will use existing authority to immediately stop tax intercepts and all other debt collection practices (including bank levies and wage garnishments) for state government debt, with the exception of child support.

The CARES Act includes $900 million to help lower income households heat and cool their homes through the existing Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), and another $1 Billion to Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) to help communities address the consequences of increasing unemployment and economic disruption. These are flexible funds to alleviate poverty, so there will be great variation from community to community for how these funds are used.

FOOD SECURITY

The Cares Act provides $8.8 billion for child nutrition programs in the form of additional funding for food purchases and demonstration projects to increase flexibility for schools; $15.51 billion for SNAP; $100 million for food distribution to low-income households living on Indian reservations and participating Indian Tribal Organizations; $200 million for U.S. territories that cannot access SNAP (Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and American Samoa), in addition to annual block grant funding; and $450 million for commodities and distribution of emergency food assistance through community partners, including food banks.

The CARES Act investments in food security mainly support administration of existing benefits, and does not establish new benefits. It will help fund H.R. 6201 implementation, support caseworker staff needed to keep up with increases in applications and caseload, and fund waivers and other accommodations necessary to comply with COVID-19 stay-at-home orders and the impending recession that our economy will face. This is important not only because this workforce will be needed to help low-income Californians meet their basic needs, but also because the county social worker workforce is made up primarily of women of color.

We are disappointed the bill doesn’t include a needed benefit increase and pause on the implementation of Trump Administration cuts to SNAP food stamp benefits. We are committed to working with local, state, and national partners, as well as California’s U.S. Senators and our Congressional Delegation, to make sure the expected fourth COVID bill includes these investments and others that are necessary to address acute levels of hunger caused by extended school feeding and congregate meal closures, and prolonged stay-at-home orders.

HEALTH

Through the passage of the CARES Act, private health plans must cover COVID-19 testing free of charge. The CARES Act also requires health plans to cover vaccinations at no-cost when it becomes available. For older adults and individuals with disabilities, the CARES Act enhances several Medicare benefits, including coverage of COVID-19 vaccination when it becomes available, more flexible provision of telehealth services, and a three-month supply of prescription drugs. For Medi-Cal beneficiaries who receive unemployment benefits under this act, these payments will not affect their Medi-Cal eligibility.

The CARES Act requires price transparency for COVID-19 testing but does not place a limit on testing costs which may skyrocket as the demand for testing increases and testing supplies remain low. Consumers will also face challenges to accessing affordable coverage for COVID-19 treatment. The CARES Act contains no prohibitions on surprise billing, such as additional costs patients often incur when using emergency care services, and no measures addressing the high out-of-pocket costs that many patients will have to pay for COVID-19 treatment. Even with this third emergency act, the federal government still has not authorized state Medicaid programs to cover COVID-19 treatment for those who are uninsured and undocumented.

HOUSING

The CARES Act provides for (1) a forbearance period for borrowers with Federally-backed loans who are financially impacted by COVID-19, (2) a moratorium on foreclosures of Federally-backed loans, and (3) a moratorium on evictions from public housing or housing with Federally-backed mortgages. 

Under the CARES Act, borrowers with Federally-backed mortgages may request a forbearance on the loan if they are experiencing a financial hardship during the COVID-19 emergency. The forbearance can last for 180 days and may be extended at the request of the borrower. No fees, penalties, or additional interest will accrue for borrowers during the period of forbearance. The CARES Act also provides a moratorium on foreclosures of federally-backed mortgages. Borrowers with Federally-backed multifamily mortgage loans may obtain forbearance of 30 days, which may be extended, and during the period of forbearance, are prohibited from evicting a household solely for non-payment. Importantly, the Act provides a 120-day moratorium on eviction filings for most federally subsidized rental housing, as well as for any housing that has a Federally-backed mortgage or multifamily mortgage loan if the eviction is based on non-payment.  Borrowers curious about their mortgages can look up the information through Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or by contacting your own mortgage company.

The CARES Act also dedicates $4 billion to the expansion of the existing Emergency Solutions Grant program intended to be used for people experiencing or who are at risk of homelessness. These funds can increase shelter capacity, allow communities to reconfigure shelter space to adhere to physical distancing guidelines, deliver medical care to people who acquire the virus or may be at higher risk, and provide short-term rental or utility assistance so that people who have lost jobs or income don’t also lose their housing.  Although the funds can be used for emergency assistance, the needs of shelters (and creating alternatives to current shelter options) are so great that there is unlikely to be sufficient funds to address all the emergency needs that come with such high rates of joblessness. It is unclear how California will use this funding.

Full Analysis of Governor Newsom’s proposed 2020-2021 state budget

For a PDF of this analysis, click here.

Last week, Governor Newsom unveiled his $222 billion 2020-21 budget proposal. Western Center’s summary of the proposal can be found here.

The state is in its 11th year of increasing tax revenue, and estimates a $5.6 billion budget surplus over existing obligations. The budget continues the practice of prioritizing saving state revenue for future years by increasing the Rainy Day fund to $18 billion and paying down state debts to reduce state payments in future years.

Governor Newsom is focused on addressing many long standing issues, particularly the homelessness and housing crisis. The budget proposes to allocate $1.4 billion to a variety of solutions, including $750 million in one-time funding to shore up board and care facilities, provide rental assistance to those at risk of or experiencing homelessness, and to fund adaptive re-use of existing structures to create additional housing that people experiencing homelessness can afford. The budget also includes substantial new funding for health care, including a proposal for the state to manufacture prescription medications and to expand health care to undocumented seniors.

The budget proposal does not include the third step of CalWORKs funding that would bring grants to 55 percent of the federal poverty level. Instead, the budget proposes a 3.1 percent increase for CalWORKs grants in October 2020. The budget also provides no increase in state funding for Supplemental Security Income (SSI/SSP) grants, keeping in place recession era cuts that have still not been restored.

Homelessness

The Governor’s budget proposes $750 million in one-time funds to be deposited in the new California Access to Housing and Services Fund, which the Governor recently created by executive order. The fund would be administered by the Department of Social Services, which would allocate dollars to “regional administrators” to be used to provide short- and long-term rental subsidies to people at risk of or experiencing homelessness, create additional housing units affordable to people with extremely low-incomes, and stabilize licensed board and care facilities around the state. How funds would be allocated and administered remains open to negotiation.

Housing

The budget proposes a one-time $500 million increase in the state Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, which funds the production and rehabilitation of housing affordable primarily to households with incomes between 30% and 80% of area median income (AMI).

Financial Security

CalWORKs: CalWORKs has gone through a period of substantial investment. In 2019, the budget included funding for a 13 percent grant increase, expanded the earned income disregard to $500 a month, and stabilized CalWORKs child care for families. This budget is not as ambitious as prior years, though it does provide a 3.1 percent increase in grants beginning October 2020. This will increase grants for a family of three by about $25 a month. However, it was anticipated that CalWORKs grants would be raised to 55 percent of the federal poverty level to ensure no child lives in deep poverty. This budget proposal will not achieve that goal.

The budget does include funding to increase the CalWORKs child support pass through. Under current law, the first $50 of child support paid by the non-custodial parent goes to the CalWORKs family, but any amount over that is used to pay for the cost of welfare benefits to the state and federal government. Beginning January 2022, CalWORKs families with one child will keep the first $100 of child support, and families with two or more children will keep the first $200 of child support.

We are grateful the Governor heard parents and families in their call for a child support program that works for children. The increases to child support pass through and relief from government-owed, uncollectable debt proposed by the Governor look like a good start. We are eager to see the associated proposed trailer bill law changes so we have more details, and look forward to working with the Governor and legislature to achieve the goals of conforming with federal law and regulation, and ensuring the program works to benefit the children it purports to help.

Fines and Fees: The budget proposes to expand the traffic court ability to pay pilot program statewide. Currently, an eight county pilot program (operational in four counties) allows persons to adjudicate traffic tickets through an online portal and reduce fines by at least 50 percent for low income drivers. The budget would expand this pilot statewide over several years to all counties. The pilot has yet to be evaluated.

Additionally, the budget makes a $92 million investment in reducing criminal justice fees and their harmful, recidivistic impact on people with low-incomes and people of color, their families, and their communities. We are grateful to Budget Chair Mitchell for her leadership on this issue and look forward to working on details with her, the Governor, and other budget leaders.

SSI/SSP: The SSI/SSP caseload continues to decline, and as a result, state funding for the state supplemental program (SSP) is declining. In the 2020-21 budget the administration projects a 1.6 percent decline in SSP spending to $2.66 billion, down from $2.73 billion in the 2019-20 budget. This continues a trend of declining state spending for disabled and elderly adults. As recently as the 2016-17 budget, the state spent $2.87 billion. Rather than invest savings from caseload declines into grants, the savings are going into the General Fund for other purposes. SSI/SSP grants are critical for paying the cost of housing; this failure to invest in SSI grants will put more recipients at risk of homelessness.

Health care

Expands full-scope Medi-Cal to all income-eligible undocumented adults age 65+ (Health4AllSeniors): Building on the 2019 Budget, which made California the first in the nation to expand full-scope Medi-Cal to adults up to age 26 regardless of immigration status, the Governor’s recent proposal includes $80.5 million ($64.2 million General Fund) to expand full-scope Medi-Cal to all income-eligible undocumented adults age 65 and older. This would benefit about 27,000 older adults, to be implemented no sooner than January 1, 2021. Full implementation costs are projected to be approximately $350 million ($320 million General Fund) in 2022-23 and ongoing.

Delays 2019 Budget Act suspensions from December 31, 2021 to July 1, 2023: The 2019 Budget made important Medi-Cal investments that were to be suspended on December 31, 2021 and the proposal delays these suspensions by 18 months. This includes restoration of Medi-Cal benefits (optical, audiology, podiatry, speech therapy, and incontinence creams and washes), extension of Medi-Cal eligibility from 60 days to one year for post-partum women diagnosed with a mental health disorder, expansion of Medi-Cal screening for the overuse of opioids and illicit drugs, and Prop 56 supplemental payments to providers.

Funding for CalAIM (recently renamed to Medi-Cal Healthier California for All Initiative): The Governor’s proposal includes $695 million ($348 million General Fund) for CalAIM effective January 1, 2021 and ongoing. Despite the name change, the administration continues to advance policy changes released in October’s proposal. The proposal still terminates the Health Homes Program (HHP) despite loss of enhanced federal match rate and the Whole Person Care (WPC) program, and includes $225 million to implement the new statewide enhanced care management benefit through plans. Plans will have the option of providing housing transition services, currently provided under HHP and WPC, and other services In Lieu of Service. The Dental Transformation Initiative will end December 2020, but $112.5 million is proposed to continue and expand program elements including provider incentives for preventive services (expanded to adults); provider incentive payments for continuity of care (expanded to adults); caries risk assessment, and adding silver diamine fluoride as a covered service for children.

Termination of Dental Managed Care in Medi-Cal: The administration proposes transitioning Medi-Cal dental services from a managed care delivery system, currently mandatory in Sacramento and optional in Los Angeles, to a fee-for-service (FFS) system in January 2021. A net zero fiscal impact is estimated due to small administrative savings offset by higher dental utilization in FFS system. However, any transition will have to ensure existing consumer protections for enrollees in dental managed care, including network adequacy requirements, continuity of care protections, and a strong grievance and appeal process.

Medi-Cal Medication Assisted Treatment Benefit Changes: The administration proposes adding all FDA approved drugs (specifically buprenorphine and buprenorphine-naloxone combination) to treat opioid addiction as a Medi-Cal benefit. Currently, only methadone and naltrexone is covered for Medi-Cal enrollees needing Medication Assisted Treatment; adding two new drugs is estimated to cost $876,000.

Prescription Drug Cost Containment: The Governor proposes to continue last year’s Executive Order to carve-out the Medi-Cal managed care benefit from managed care to fee-for-service effective January 1, 2021 to include savings that are partially offset by creation of a new supplemental payment pool for non-hospital clinics for 340B pharmacy services. The Governor also proposes to establish the state’s own generic drug label to manufacture certain generic drugs, establish a single market for drug pricing within the state to combine purchasing power, and expand authority to negotiate with manufacturers internationally for Medi-Cal supplemental rebates.

Potential Public Option: With more details to come, the Health and Human Services Agency will develop options to strengthen enrollment, affordability, and choice through Covered California, including leveraging the network of existing public Medi-Cal managed care plans.

Office of Health Care Affordability: The administration proposes the establishment of the Office of Health Care Affordability in spring 2020 to increase price and quality transparency, and to reduce costs to generate savings to directly-impacted consumers.

Hearing Aids for Children: The budget proposes to create a state program to assist families with the cost of hearing aids and related services for children without health insurance coverage for households with incomes up to 600% FPL.

Behavioral Health: The administration proposes to establish the Behavioral Health Task Force Agency and strengthen enforcement of behavioral health parity laws. The Department of Managed Health Care’s enforcement will focus on timely access to treatment, network adequacy, benefit design and plan policies. The administration also supports updating the Mental Health Services Act to focus on people with mental illness experiencing homelessness, those involved in the criminal justice system, and for early youth intervention.

 

 

 

Western Center Reaction to Governor Newsom’s Proposed 2020-2021 Budget

First and foremost, Western Center is pleased that Governor Newsom’s proposed budget includes significant and innovative proposals to address the homelessness crisis in California, which will not only help the thousands of people currently experiencing homelessness, but will also prevent more people from losing their housing. We are also pleased to see the Governor take another major step toward providing health care for all by expanding Medi-Cal coverage to undocumented adults over age 65, and to see the extension of the tax ban on period products and diapers, which makes our tax code more equitable for women, girls and young families.

We were hoping to see additional investments for CalWORKs and SSI grants in this proposal, since they are both crucial for lifting Californians out of poverty. We will continue to advocate for those increases in the final budget agreement.

Below are our initial reactions to the proposed budget by issue area. We will release an in-depth analysis next week.

Housing

The proposed budget appropriately treats the state’s homelessness crisis as an emergency. The proposal devotes additional resources to help people at risk of homelessness remain stably housed and to increase both temporary shelter capacity and permanent housing options for people already experiencing homelessness. We are pleased to see the Governor’s sustained commitment to addressing homelessness and look forward to working in partnership with his administration and legislative leaders to further develop effective, sustainable solutions to the crisis that prioritize residents living in poverty.

We agree with the Governor that the state must ramp up efforts to address the state’s shortage of housing, which is primarily a shortage at lower income levels. We are eager to work with the Governor to ensure that policies and programs to speed housing production prioritize the creation of units for households with the lowest incomes who are priced out of the rental market in every county in the state, protect low-income communities and communities of color from displacement, and increase access to high opportunity areas for our clients.

Financial Security

The budget includes funding to increase the CalWORKs child support pass through (read about it here). Currently, the first $50 of child support paid by a non-custodial parent goes to the CalWORKs family, but any amount over that is kept by state and federal governments. In the Governor’s newly proposed budget, CalWORKs families with one child will keep the first $100 of child support, and families with two or more children will keep the first $200 of child support, beginning January 2022. It also includes funding to provide debt relief for child support owed to the government that is deemed uncollectable. We are grateful that the Governor has heard from parents and families in their call for a child support program that works for children, and we are eager to see proposed associated trailer bill law changes for details. We look forward to working with the Governor and legislature to achieve the goals of conforming with federal law and regulation, and ensuring the program works to benefit the children it purports to help.

The budget also includes the extension of the tax ban on period products and diapers, which will make our tax code more equitable, since taxes on period products and diapers are regressive to poor families and young people. We look forward to continuing work in the legislature to end unmet diaper need and period poverty in California.

Additionally, the budget makes a $92 million investment in reducing criminal justice fees and their harmful, recidivistic impact on people with low-incomes and people of color, their families, and their communities. We are grateful to Budget Chair Mitchell for her leadership on this issue and look forward to working on details with her, the Governor, and other budget leaders. We’re also happy to see that Californians with low incomes will soon be able to reduce the cost of their traffic fines and the overall impact of expensive traffic tickets, with this budget proposing to expand the traffic court ability-to-pay pilot program (currently operational in four counties) statewide over several years. The pilot has yet to be evaluated, so we look forward to details from the Judicial Council to see if the program’s reductions in fines and fees are adequate or need to reduced further.

Finally, to further enhance financial security for Californians, the Governor’s budget creates a new state version of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The proposed financial watchdog will hold banks and other financial firms accountable when they engage in unfair and abusive debt collection and banking practices. Medical, student loan, school lunch, and other forms of debt disproportionally burden people experiencing poverty; we expect this new agency to offer important protections for our clients.

Health Care

We applaud the Governor for continuing to move toward universal coverage by making California the first in the nation to expand full-scope Medi-Cal to all income-eligible seniors regardless of immigration status, taking a whole person approach to Medi-Cal, and cost containment with an eye toward quality and equity. We look forward to working with the administration and legislature to advance a budget that ensures equitable access to affordable, comprehensive, quality health care for poor Californians.

The Governor’s proposal also delays suspension of benefits and eligibility, by extending certain Medi-Cal benefits (optical, audiology, podiatry, speech therapy, and incontinence creams and washes), extending Medi-Cal eligibility from 60 days to one year for post-partum women diagnosed with a mental health disorder, and expanding Medi-Cal screening for the overuse of opioids and illicit drugs, all until July 2023.

 

Western Center’s 2019 Budget & Legislative Victories

16 Western Center bills were signed by Governor Gavin Newsom this year, marking huge wins for California. Of note are two renter protection bills, AB 1482, now one of the nation’s most expansive anti-rent gouging and just cause for eviction laws, and SB 329, which prohibits discrimination against housing voucher holders.

For health care, SB 464 will require perinatal health providers to undergo implicit bias training to address the maternal mortality rate for black women in California, which is 4-5 times higher than it is for white women. For financial security, SB 616 outlaws the ability of debt collectors to drain people’s bank accounts, leaving them without funds for necessary day-to-day expenses. These legislative victories are in addition to big wins achieved in the state budget earlier this year.

See the full suite of Western Center’s 2019 budget and legislative victories below!

Bauer-Kahan Scores Double Victory with Two Bills Aimed at Helping California’s College Students

On Oct. 4, Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan’s (D-Orinda) bill AB 1344 was signed into law – one of two bills by Bauer-Kahan that was signed by the Governor this week.

…“Low-income Californians are trying hard to improve their life trajectories and to strengthen their communities,” said Jessica Barthalow of the Western Center on Law & Poverty. “Too often when they manage to take one step ahead, program rules take them one step back. AB 807 helps to change that, which is why we have been proud to sponsor this important piece of legislation.”

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California lawmakers take aim at ‘punitive’ child support system for low-income families

When Ronnell Hampton was growing up, his father wrote a $600 check every month to pay his child support.

But only $50 of that amount actually made it to Hampton’s family; the rest was sent back to the government to repay the cost of public assistance.

The family could have used the extra cash, Hampton said. He recalled days with the electricity turned off, selling candy and pumping gas to make ends meet, and school outings he couldn’t go to because they didn’t have enough money.

…“Once it becomes a debt owed to the government, that money never gets sent to the child,” says Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, which co-sponsored the bills. “It’s kind of the original sin of the child support system we have in place today, which is, how do we call it a child support system where none of that money goes back to the child?”

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Update on Western Center Cases

By Richard Rothschild, Director of Litigation

The past month has seen a remarkable number of decisions in Western Center cases —  mostly good, some not great. Below is a rundown, from favorable to less favorable. To learn about more of our cases, take a look at our case docket.

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Hernandez v. DMV­

BACKGROUND: The California DMV was automatically suspending driver’s licenses of low-income traffic defendants who were referred by courts for “willful” failure to pay fines, without determining their ability to pay.

DECISION: As this suit progressed, the Legislature abolished license suspensions for failure to pay, but DMV continued to insist for many months that existing suspensions would not be lifted.

A judge has awarded attorneys’ fees on the case.

IMPACT: The court awarded the fees for our advocacy on the issue, and hundreds of thousands of Californians have had their licenses restored.

Moncrief v. County of Los Angeles

BACKGROUND: Los Angeles County was illegally terminating Medi-Cal recipients from rolls because of a backlog in processing annual renewal forms.

DECISION: The County of LA has tentatively agreed to pay attorneys’ fees, subject to Board of Supervisors approval. In the underlying suit, the court ruled that the County could not terminate benefits for Medi-Cal recipients who had filled out their renewal forms in a timely fashion, deeming the County’s practice an “institutional failure.”

IMPACT: Thousands of LA Medi-Cal recipients restored to Medi-Cal rolls, restoring access to health care.

Thomas v. Kent

BACKGROUND: The State placed an arbitrary monetary cap on coverage for a program that keeps people with severe disabilities at home and out of institutions. We argued that the cap violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

DECISION: The State has agreed to pay attorneys’ fees, subject to Legislative approval.

IMPACT: The suit resulted in lifting of Department of Health Care Services-imposed arbitrary cost caps on people with major physical disabilities, which threatened institutionalization (much costlier than in-home care).

Rivera v. Kent

BACKGROUND: “The evidence presented in the trial court showed that, beginning in late 2013 and early 2014, there were delays in the determination of applications for Medi-Cal benefits. Evidence submitted by plaintiffs showed that, in some cases, delays in determining eligibility had severe consequences for applicants who did not obtain needed medical care.”

DECISION: The trial court in Rivera ordered the Department of Health Care Services to decide all non-disability Medi-Cal applications within 45 days as mandated by federal law. The Court of Appeal reversed and held that the State acts legally as long as it decides at least 90 percent of applications within the 45-day period. We are petitioning for review.

IMPACT: Thanks to earlier victories in the case, hundreds of thousands of applicants have received timely benefits.

Christensen v. Lightbourne

BACKGROUND: “CalWORKs applicant, Angie Christensen, lives with her husband and her children. Her husband is the noncustodial parent of additional children, and court-ordered child support is garnished from his income for the benefit of these children who do not live in the applicant’s home. Counting the garnished amounts as nonexempt income to the applicant’s family, San Mateo County determined the family’s income was too high to qualify for CalWORKs cash aid and denied the application.”

DECISION: The California Supreme Court held that for the purposes of determining CalWORKs (public assistance) eligibility, the State can count a husband’s wages and unemployment garnished to pay for children in another family as income in his current household.

IMPACT: This is a challenge for low-income households in California, because it bars access to CalWORKs for families whose incomes exceed limits before taking into account payments a parent makes to a separate household, which are resources children in the household where the parent resides can’t benefit from.

Soza v. Lightbourne

BACKGROUND: Petitioners had their welfare and CalFresh food stamp benefits electronically stolen while their benefit cards remained in their physical possession.  The State reimbursed loss of cash benefits, but refused to reimburse for CalFresh loss.

DECISION: A Superior Court judge has ruled that the CalFresh recipient, whose benefits were stolen electronically through no fault of his own, cannot recoup the value of his lost benefits. We are planning to appeal.

IMPACT: This decision leaves other food stamp beneficiaries vulnerable to the insecurity of being unable to recoup loss from electronic theft.