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Panel slashes West Nile funds

A legislative budget committee has angered mosquito abatement and public health officials by slicing more than half of the money Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed to help combat West Nile virus, including funding targeted for the Sacramento Delta and Central Valley.

In his $115.7 billion revised budget, the governor proposed $12 million to help with mosquito abatement and monitoring and education about the mosquito-borne disease that killed 28 people and 230 horses in the state last year.

But the budget conference committee, a joint Senate-Assembly panel crafting a legislative budget blueprint, last week voted to eliminate $7 million.

Critics of the move say the money will be particularly critical in the coming year, when health experts fear that heavy rainfall, snowmelt and warm weather will create ideal breeding conditions for mosquitoes, which spread the virus.

"We think it's setting up for the perfect storm, if you will," said David Brown, manager of the Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District. "We were looking for those funds to hopefully stave off what we anticipate to be a bad year."

The conference committee is negotiating a compromise budget between the two houses to take to the full Legislature.

Democratic Assemblyman John Laird, the committee's chairman, said the administration was asking for the money but could not specifically lay out how it would be used.

"They did not have a formed program and they could not tell us (beyond) the amount we put in the budget what it was going for," said Laird, of Santa Cruz. "We have a multibillion-dollar deficit and we are trying to close it, and if people cannot justify what money is going for, we are not looking favorably on it."

If the Legislature agrees to eliminate the funds in the budget it sends to Schwarzenegger, he does not have the authority to restore the money. But legislative leaders could agree to replace the money during budget negotiations with the Republican governor.

In 2005, the virus has shown up in 21 California counties. A Plumas County horse became the first in California infected this year with West Nile virus.

H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the governor's Department of Finance, said the $7 million was to be slated for specific Central and Northern California areas with wetlands, dairies, reservoirs or other potential West Nile virus breeding grounds.

Kim Belshé, Schwarzenegger's Health and Human Services secretary, issued a statement Monday urging the committee to reconsider its decision to cut the funding.

"This funding is essential to enhance California's mosquito control efforts and reduce death and illness from West Nile virus," Belshé said. "Some of the more vulnerable places, like the Central Valley, don't have means to 'fight the bite.' This extra money was supposed to help them."

Palmer said the funding was to include:

* $1.5 million for the Sacramento Delta.

* $2 million for northern Sacramento Valley's Butte Sink region.

* $1.5 million for northern San Joaquin Valley.

* $2 million for southern San Joaquin Valley.

"From our perspective, (the cut is) terrifically, unfortunately shortsighted," said Ted Toppin, a spokesman for the Mosquito and Vector Control Association of California. "The committee apparently doesn't appreciate the West Nile health threat and regrettably doesn't think the state plays a role in protecting public health."

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