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Fewer smokers equals less state funding for child services programs

January 17, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Funding is dwindling for vital children's services in the First 5 program due to Californians smoking less.

California is one of two states to reach the target of 12 percent for the rate of adult smoking. But the good news comes with a price.

The Sacramento Crisis Nursery is just one of numerous programs statewide under First 5 California that benefits from an extra 50-cent tax on cigarettes, which voters approved in 1998 under Proposition 10. The money funds health and education services for very young children.

"We provide emergency daycare and emergency overnight care for children ages zero to 5 whose parents are experiencing a crisis," said Suzi Dotson, program director of the Sacramento Crisis Nursery.

But First 5 California has to face reality: The adult smoking rate in California is at an all-time low at just 11.9 percent, meaning with fewer cigarettes being sold, kids programs are not getting as much money from the tax.

The balance sheet forecast is $79 million by 2014. That's nearly a $40-million drop in just eight years.

Assembly Health Committee Chairman Bill Monning (D-Carmel) is alarmed, but the state budget is hardly in a position to make up the difference.

"We'll be looking at ways to stretch a depleted budget to try to protect children," said Monning.

Fiscal conservatives say the state shouldn't bail out First 5 because Proposition 10 supporters knew the day would come when smoking-cessation programs would be successful.

"It would look like the proponents achieved their purpose: To get people to stop smoking. So now they have to live with it," said Assembly Budget Vice-Chairman Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber).

When the cigarette tax passed, lawmakers moved several kids programs away from the unpredictable state budget and into the more stable First 5; now some regret it.

"We really probably should have never pulled General Fund funding from these services to create the situation we're now in," said Assm. Budget Subcommittee Chairwoman Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles).

First 5 programs are nervous that fewer smokers could mean cuts to their services and turning away children.

"Considering the kind of children that we see and the situations that we see, it would definitely be very hard to imagine," said Suzi Dotson.

All 58 counties are expected to send representatives to Sacramento this week to discuss the funding drop. It will also be a chance to talk about solutions.