Politics & Government

If Trump does try to take away California’s federal dollars, he faces a rough time

Serious legal, political and practical obstacles impede President Donald Trump’s threat to withhold federal funds from the state of California or its cities if they declare themselves sanctuaries for immigrants.

Not that that will stop the president from trying or, at least, tweeting about it.

Key court decisions restrain the federal government’s ability to put coercive strings on funding. Some Republican as well as all Democratic lawmakers would object on behalf of their California constituents. And with upward of $67 billion in federal grants being funneled to the state annually, picking and choosing would quickly get complicated.

“Any pain the president wants to cause in California will ripple nationwide,” California Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León said Monday.

He added that “Trump’s threat to weaponize federal funding is not only unconstitutional but emblematic of the cruelty he seeks to impose on our most vulnerable communities.”

Trump, who previously mused aloud about cutting off federal funding specifically to the University of California, revived the theme and broadened his threat Sunday night in an interview with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News. Responding to a question about California proposals to restrict state and local cooperation with immigration enforcement, Trump declared defunding “certainly . . . would be an option.”

“If we have to, we’ll defund,” Trump said. “We give tremendous amounts of money to California. California in many ways is out of control, as you know.”

California voted overwhelmingly for Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, and has not voted for a Republican for president since 1988. Gov. Jerry Brown won re-election in the state easily in 2014. Both the state’s U.S. senators are Democrats.

Citing Trump’s “out of control” characterization, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the leading Democratic candidate for governor in 2018, offered a contrasting perspective Monday.

“Out here, we just call it ‘basic morality,’ ” he said.

If Trump actually followed through, it could deprive cities like Sacramento and Los Angeles of the Community Oriented Policing Services grants that have helped fund new law enforcement hires. It could divert the tens of millions of dollars that California and its counties receive to help incarcerate criminal immigrants. Flood control, firefighting and more could all lose funds.

Or perhaps the White House might target smaller and more politically vulnerable funding streams, like the National Endowment for the Arts grants, which included $15,000 to the Sacramento-based Association of California Symphony Orchestras last year.

California receives more than $343 billion a year in federal funds annually, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts study that analyzed data from 2012 to 2013. This is more than any other state, potentially giving Trump a lot of leverage.

Roughly $200 billion of the state’s total, though, goes for unassailable individual benefits provided to veterans, senior citizens and the poor. An additional $48 billion or so goes for contracts, including the defense contracts that Trump has suggested he wants to boost as part of expanding the U.S. military.

It’s the realm of federal grants that might give a vengeance-seeking White House the greatest room to maneuver. Even with grants, though, the president can’t dictate funding cutoffs in precisely the way he might imagine.

“Threatening to cut off federal funding to sanctuary cities is not a constructive approach to working with local governments and states,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said Monday.

The Supreme Court, for one, has at times been skeptical about the federal government attaching conditions to funding. In a much-discussed 2012 decision on the Affordable Care Act, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote that the law had gone too far when it effectively threatened states with losing federal Medicaid funding if they didn’t expand their Medicaid programs to low-income adults.

“When . . . such conditions take the form of threats to terminate other significant independent grants, the conditions are properly viewed as a means of pressuring the states to accept policy changes,” Roberts wrote, adding that the financial conditions amounted to a “gun to the head.”

It is also unclear how the Trump administration might try to steer competitive or merit-based grants away from California, such as those going to University of California researchers. Just two of the campuses, Berkeley and UCLA, received $187 million in National Science Foundation grants last year.

The foundation’s research guidelines stress that all proposals are judged on “intellectual merit” and the “potential to benefit society,” with no mention of institutional conformance to the president’s policies.

Nonetheless, conservative lawmakers in the new Congress that started in January have introduced multiple bills to cut off certain kinds of funding for sanctuaries. One measure, dubbed the Stop Dangerous Sanctuary Cities Act, would block sanctuary cities or states from receiving Community Development Block Grants and other economic development funds.

The 74 House of Representatives co-sponsors of the bill include California Republican Reps. Tom McClintock of Elk Grove and Doug LaMalfa of Richvale. McClintock said Monday that though he was unfamiliar with Trump’s latest comments, “there’s a strong sentiment in Congress – that I share – that any jurisdiction that refuses to enforce federal law should not receive federal law enforcement funds.”

The bill’s long-term prospects are unclear, though the president’s rhetorical attention to the issue could propel it even as critics push back.

“California has the most manufacturing jobs in the nation. We have not only balanced our budget, we have had surpluses and put money away for future economic downturns,” California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, said Monday. “If this is what Donald Trump thinks is ‘out of control,’ I’d suggest other states should be more like us.”

Cadelago reports for The Sacramento Bee.