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Endorsement: Prop. 1 would lead to smarter use of existing funding for homelessness, mental health

San Diego Union-Tribune - 2/9/2024

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Proposition 1 on the March 5 ballot would allow the state to issue a bond to raise $6.4 billion to build behavioral treatment facilities and affordable housing and fine-tune a 2004 initiative, the Mental Health Services Act. That measure required those making more than $1 million to pay an additional 1 percent in income tax. The proposition would also force counties to spend more on housing and treatment for individuals who suffer from substance abuse issues and mental illness.

Voters have great reason to be wary of new state government proposals to deal with mental illness and the linked issue of homelessness. State Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, long a close adviser to Jerry Brown, made a key point last year when he detailed how little politicians care about trying to gauge whether their heavy spending on programs related to homelessness and other issues are actually effective. Critics of Proposition 1 also have a case when they say its likely effect is grossly exaggerated by proponents.

But voters should also be cognizant of the fact that local government bodies often do bad jobs in following through on state laws. After the enactment in 1998 of the First 5 California initiative to help boost the health and education of children 5 and under, many counties used the funding they got in random ways, including paying for trips to theme parks. After the enactment of the Local Control Funding Formula in 2013 to help disadvantaged students in school districts with large numbers of low-income families, it quickly became obvious that many districts that got extra funding through the law were using the money for employee raises — not at all reflecting the law's intent.

Attaching more strings to state-provided funding makes sense — in particular on homelessness and mental health. In November 2022, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a blistering critique of how local governments were using related grants.

Of course, Newsom is among the state leaders who Glazer implicitly faulted for weak state oversight of major programs. But on this issue, Newsom and other leaders have a case that stricter guidelines will lead to better mental health care for some hurting Californians.

Proposition 1 is no panacea. If it passes, it's unlikely to mean anything to most of the estimated 180,000 Californians without shelter. But the state already spends tens of billions of dollars each year on mental health issues and homelessness. Anything that can be done to ensure these funds are used in smarter ways amounts to progress. And the fact that interest costs on the bond would be paid from the state budget adds to the case that this is a responsible and prudent step.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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