Sacramento Bee

December 14, 2007

Mental health shift sparks suit

By Andy Furillo - afurillo@sacbee.com

Advocates seek to halt using Prop. 63 money to fund homeless program.

Mental health advocates are suing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to stop his administration from funding a $55 million homeless program with money from a voter-approved tax on millionaires.

Schwarzenegger used his line-item veto power on Aug. 24 to eliminate the general fund appropriation for the homeless adults program. He said then that the program could be financed with cash generated by Proposition 63, the 2004 initiative designed to expand services for the mentally ill.

The suit, filed Thursday in Alameda Superior Court, says supplanting the $55 million undermines the intent of the initiative, which places an additional 1 percent tax on the income of California millionaires.

If the governor's action stands, the lawsuit contends, it would establish a precedent for redirecting more Proposition 63 funds in the future into existing programs, contrary to the explicit promises of the initiative's backers that it would not.

"Proposition 63 specifically prohibited supplantation and required the state to maintain the same level of services that existed at the time the act passed," said the measure's author, state Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. "We told the people of California we were going to expand mental health services, not use the money to keep them at the same level."

The administration countered Thursday that general mental health program funding has increased by nearly a third since Proposition 63 took effect, from $558 million then to $741 million now. In addition, the Proposition 63 fund itself has been growing every year, from $1.3 billion in its first full fiscal year to $1.5 billion this year.

As California is looking at a $14 billion budget deficit and across-the-board cuts in state spending, Proposition 63 money might be the best source of cash for the homeless program, said Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer.

"The state is being challenged," Palmer said. "The veto the governor made was part of the budget. As the governor said, he supports the goals of the program. The reduction of that money was necessary to bring expenditures and revenues in line. That is clearly more than the case today."

Proposition 63 built on previous legislation authored by Steinberg that established the Homeless Adults Program in 1999 and expanded it the following year. The program seeks to get the homeless mentally ill off the streets and into housing programs that include psychiatric and social service treatments.

Mental health advocates released a study in 2003 of 4,800 people who had benefited from the program, according to the lawsuit. The study showed that the program cut the clients' collective hospitalization time by 56 percent, incarceration time by 72 percent and days spent on the streets by 67 percent, the lawsuit said. Meanwhile, the recipients spent significantly more days working full time or part time, according to the suit.

Frank Topping, 60, of Sacramento was one of the first people in the state that the program helped lift off the streets. Bipolar, with psychotic features and severe depression, Topping said he had been living in a garage with no roof in Oak Park, eating out of fast-food restaurants' Dumpsters, when a woman got him into the program.

Now he's receiving disability income and living in his own apartment, still with the help of the program, which gets him to psychiatric appointments and helps him sort out his medications, among other services.

"It was absolute life," Topping said of the homeless program.

A member of the Proposition 63 steering committee, Topping said it would be "devastating" for the state to shift the program's funding to the Proposition 63 account. "Supplantation is totally outlawed," he said.

Topping is not a party to the suit, but the action does list four individual plaintiffs and three advocacy groups – the Mental Health Association of California, the California Network of Mental Health Clients and the National Alliance on Mental Illness California.

Rusty Selix, the executive director of the Mental Health Association, said Proposition 63 money already pays for other comprehensive programs and services that keep mentally ill people on the job, at work, out of jail and out of the hospital. The governor's budget move, he said, will "drive a hole" into the initiative.

The supplantation may not destroy Proposition 63, but Selix said it will put a bull's-eye on the initiative's bottom line that future budget cutters will be targeting in years to come.

"If this were allowed to stand, we know it would not be the last time," Selix said. "We know the history of this state and the lack of support for mental health funding."