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Democrats, Gov. Brown discuss bridging $2B divide to avoid welfare reductions
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SACRAMENTO  (AP) — Democratic leaders are meeting privately with Gov. Jerry Brown to try to avoid about $2 billion in proposed welfare cuts as next week's budget deadline approaches, the state Senate leader said Thursday.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said he and Assembly Speaker John Perez would like to find "middle ground" with the Democratic governor on how to close the state's entire $15.7 billion deficit. The Legislature faces a June 15 deadline for passing a balanced budget.

Both sides need each other as they seek tax increases on the November ballot. The governor's office declined to comment about ongoing negotiations.

While Democratic lawmakers are largely in agreement with the governor, they oppose Brown's proposal of about $2 billion in cuts to the state's welfare-to-work program known as CalWORKS; child care assistance for low-income families; in-home supportive services; and Cal Grants, which provides college financial aid.

Democrats would rather not make those cuts because they hurt the most vulnerable. They have not said where that money should come from.

"We have the same objective, which is to end the deficit," Steinberg said. "But to do so in a way that ... recognizes that there are people in California who are very vulnerable and who are already living on the edge. And we ought not to do anything that pushes people over the edge."

Republicans criticized Democrats for not holding traditional committee hearings where both parties cast votes on contentious issues before the budget is presented to the full Legislature. The GOP has been left out of budget talks since voters in 2010 passed Proposition 25, the majority-vote budget. It allowed Democrats who control both houses of the Legislature to craft a spending plan without the minority party, but taxes still require a two-thirds vote.

Sen. Bill Emmerson, R-Hemet, said the budget will be the result of "a back-room discussion" between Democratic leaders and the governor.

"The public and legislators from most districts will be left out of that discussion," Emmerson said during a Senate budget committee hearing. "We know you will do whatever you want with a partisan vote over the next several days, but we remain concerned about transparency and honesty in this new budget process that you have created."

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said Democrats are looking for alternatives "to maybe 5 percent" of the governor's proposal.

Democratic leaders also are working with the governor to resolve several policy issues. For example, the state is figuring out how much to send to local governments after the state passed sweeping legislation to assign thousands of lower-level inmates to county jails rather than overcrowded state prisons.

Steinberg said the state is still trying to figure out how much to spend on local jails and adding cells within state prisons

The Senate leader also said he remains uneasy about Brown's proposal to limit the amount of money government agencies can recover for battling wildfires and restoring damaged public lands. The U.S. Attorney's office has blasted the proposal as a "fairly cynical attempt" to benefit the timber industry.

In addition, Democrats want to find ways to protect dozens of state parks that are in danger of being closed on July 1 because of previously approved budget cuts.

Brown has proposed a tax hike that would fill about half the state's projected shortfall and has been leaning on Democrats to make deeper cuts to social services and health care programs for the poor.

Brown's tax hike is projected to raise $8.5 billion through mid-2013. Of that amount, the administration projects $5.6 billion will benefit the general fund. The governor has called for a contingency plan to shorten the public school year by as much as three weeks and make deeper college cuts if the tax plan fails.

Under his plan, California would temporarily raise the state's sales tax by a quarter-cent to 7.5 percent for four years and increase the income tax for seven years on individuals who make more than $250,000 and joint filers who make more than $500,000.