Capitol Alert

Senate Democrats propose $2 billion plan for homeless

A homeless man rests inside a sleeping bag downtown Los Angeles, on Friday, Nov. 27, 2015.
A homeless man rests inside a sleeping bag downtown Los Angeles, on Friday, Nov. 27, 2015. AP

In an opening to this year’s budget negotiations at the Capitol, Senate Democrats on Monday proposed a $2 billion bond to build homes for homeless people with mental illnesses.

The measure would be funded by Proposition 63, the existing, 1 percent income tax on Californians earning $1 million or more per year to pay for mental health services.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León said at a news conference in Los Angeles that the money could fund construction of at least 10,000 housing units statewide.

The proposal comes before Gov. Jerry Brown releases his annual budget plan this week. Brown, a relatively moderate Democrat, has clashed with lawmakers of his own party in previous years over funding for social services.

Deborah Hoffman, a spokeswoman for Brown, said in an email that “the administration is supportive of efforts to empower local governments to tackle homelessness, poverty, and mental health issues in our communities and we will take a close look at the proposals in this package.”

In addition to the $2 billion bond, de León, D-Los Angeles, said he will push for $200 million in general fund revenue over four years to pay for rent subsidies for homeless people and will seek to increase in the Supplemental Security Income/State Supplementary Payment grants that help low-income seniors and people with disabilities. The measure would not have to go on the ballot, but would part of the budget negotiations with Brown.

His predecessor, Darrell Steinberg, the Sacramento Democrat who wrote Proposition 63, called the housing plan “the boldest proposal to reduce homelessness in a generation, if not longer.”

De León cast the proposal as a bipartisan effort. He and Steinberg were joined in Los Angeles by two Republican senators, Bob Huff and John Moorlach.

Huff, of San Dimas, said, “We’re trying to do something about a persistent problem.”

Nearly 30,000 chronically homeless people live in California, more than one-third of the nation’s total chronically homeless population, according to federal estimates.

Senate Democrats estimate annual debt service on a $2 billion bond would require about $130 million of about $1.8 billion in annual Proposition 63 revenue.

Proposition 63, passed by California voters in 2004, has been hailed by mental health advocates as an irreplaceable source of funding, while facing persistent criticism about oversight. Last year, the Little Hoover Commission faulted the state for bureaucratic and technological shortcomings it said made it difficult, if not impossible, to analyze the effectiveness of spending under the measure.

In a separate report in 2013, state Auditor Elaine Howle said that because of minimal oversight, California has “little current assurance” that funds directed to counties have been used effectively.

Rose King, a political consultant who helped craft Proposition 63, said that before the state starts spending money on housing construction, it should repair a mental health system that she said fails to reach many Californians who need it.

“We totally oppose this,” she said.

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders