Healthy Kids Funding Plan Stalls California Budget

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California's Healthy Kids program provides health insurance to low-income children, including those of illegal immigrants. Private donors and local taxes have funded the program, but as John Sepulvado of member station KAZU reports, a plan to add state dollars is stalling the annual budget process.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY. For the 20th straight year, the California State Legislature has failed to pass a budget to meet its deadline. This particular session, lawmakers can't decide on how much tax money should go to help cover insurance costs for illegal immigrants. That's making political problems for Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. From member station KAZU in Monterey, California, John Sepulvado reports.

JOHN SEPULVADO reporting:

California's legislative Republicans say too many people like illegal immigrant Sandra Insezo(ph) are coming to the state. Sandra left Tijuana because it was an unhealthy environment for her daughter, she says, and the jobs don't pay well. In California, Sandra says, she can make more money serving cinnamon rolls at the local mall than she ever could back home. Best of all, her daughter has health insurance.

Ms. SANDRA INSEZO (Illegal immigrant): I don't pay nothing. Healthy Kids (unintelligible). Healthy Kids, yes.

Mr. SEPULVADO: Sandra is talking about Healthy Kids, an HMO-style program. Eighteen California counties, like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz offer it to all children - legal or not - who meet low income standards. Funding comes from local tax revenues and a patchwork of private donors.

But the money is getting tight, and waiting lists are getting long. So, legislative Democrats floated a $300 million proposal to fund Healthy Kids with State tax dollars. And that has royally irked Republicans like Orange County Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, who calls it a subsidy for breaking the law.

Assemblyman CHUCK DEVORE (Republican, California): These are children who are here illegally along with their parents. What you're telling them is bring your entire family here, because we will then give your entire family the best healthcare California taxpayers can afford.

Assembly Speaker FABIAN NUNEZ (Democrat, California): I don't get that.

Mr. SEPULVADO: That's Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez of Los Angeles.

Mr. NUNEZ: Does the value of life of that child worthless because that child came to this country illegally?

Mr. SEPULVADO: Nunez also says funding Healthy Kids is good public health policy. And this brings us back to Sandra Insezo. Shortly after the single mom enrolled her daughter Elizabeth in school and settled into her new home, she got a phone call. It was bad news.

Ms. INSEZO: One day the teacher called me and said Elizabeth broke her arm. And I go to Elizabeth and my daughter...

(Soundbite of crying)

Ms. INSEZO: ...and she cried, and then came the ambulance and got my daughter.

Mr. SEPULVADO: A quick elbow surgery later, Elizabeth was on her way home. Healthy Kids picked up the tab. Republicans see a woman who broke the law and was rewarded with tax dollars. Democrats see a child who will be able to use her arm later in life thanks to a government program. And while the issue has divided state lawmakers along party lines, Claremont McKenna College Government Professor Jack Pitney says one politician can't look at the issue through partisan lenses.

Prof. JACK PITNEY (Government, Claremont McKenna College): The governor has to run statewide and has to capture a certain share of the Latino vote.

Mr. SEPULVADO: Pitney says if Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to win this year's gubernatorial race, he has to walk a political tightrope on this issue. Schwarzenegger's current proposal is a one year, 23 million dollar package. And Pitney suggests that future statewide candidates outside of California watch Schwarzenegger closely.

Prof. PITNEY: The kind of conflict that we've seen in California is going to be replicated elsewhere. This is going to continue to be a very contentious issue, not only in California, but throughout the country.

Mr. SEPULVADO: But things might cool off in California for awhile. Key Democrats say they might just drop their $300 million plan for now and bring it back later this summer. For NPR News, I'm John Sepulvado, in Monterey.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: More in a moment on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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