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Obama budget trims include programs popular in California

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's budget-cutting wish list released Thursday targets myriad California programs that have withstood past presidential forays.

In theory, California would lose tens of millions of dollars in reimbursements for incarcerating illegal aliens. Central Valley farmers would lose grants designed to boost exports. The state's schools could lose about $33 million a year in drug-free school grants.

In practice, many of these putative savings represent warmed-over ideas that perennially stall on Capitol Hill whatever their public policy merits may be.

"We're definitely concerned about a couple of these cuts," said Bret Rumbeck, spokesman for Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.

The $17 billion worth of cuts proposed Thursday accompanied the administration's overall budget package, which expands on a budget outline released in February. For instance, the overall budget includes $105 million to finish two new federal prisons, including a long-stalled facility in the town of Mendota.

The proposed spending, though, is likely to fare better on Capitol Hill than the proposed cuts, which confront entrenched interests.

Obama, notably, seeks $400 million in savings by eliminating reimbursements for states, cities and counties that imprison illegal immigrants charged with other crimes. California typically receives about one-third of the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program funds, which trickle down to the local level.

Last year, for instance, the reimbursements ranged from $172,000 to Merced County and $339,000 to Stanislaus County to $1.3 million for Fresno County. Even rural Tuolumne County picked up $11,000 from the program Obama wants to end.

The White House Office of Management and Budget stated Thursday that it "recognizes the financial burden that the current immigration system places on states and localities." Nonetheless, officials insisted the money could be "better used," citing in part overall border security efforts.

The Bush administration tried cutting the reimbursement program every year. Like clockwork, Congress restored the funding.

"We realize this is a cooperative process with Congress," OMB Director Peter Orszag told reporters Thursday. "Perhaps their list will vary a little bit from ours and that's to be expected, and we look forward to working with them to get as much done as possible."

Congress already has given a cold shoulder to a renewed administration proposal to phase out crop subsidies for farmers with high incomes. Similarly, farm state lawmakers will be fighting back against the proposal published Thursday to cut the $200 million-a-year Market Access Program by 20 percent.

The California Walnut Commission, California Table Grape Commission, Sunkist and numerous other farm groups receive money each year from the program. The federal funding pays for overseas advertising and marketing campaigns.

"(The program's) economic impact is unclear, and it does not service a clear need," the Obama administration's budget justification stated, adding that "the program has often been singled out as an example of corporate welfare."

It is also beloved by many California farm groups, who will fight to keep it. In recent days, for instance, half a dozen California walnut growers have been roaming Capitol Hill to rally support. Ken Gilliland of the Western Growers Association said that growers "have a good story to tell" about the program that he said has been producing higher exports.

"The last four presidents have all, at one point or another, looked for a cut in this program," noted Dan Haley, a lobbyist for the California Walnut Commission and other farm groups. "I don't want to sound overconfident, but we're convinced we will be able to hold the budget."

Similarly, Obama is following Bush's lead in attempting to eliminate the $295 million-a-year Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities state grant program. The administration cites audits that found the state grant program to be "profoundly flawed" and ineffective. California's share is about $33 million.

Instead of the state formula grants, the Obama administration wants to increase competitively awarded discretionary grants. Last year, for instance, the Tulare Unified School District won a $430,000 safe and drug-free school grant to combat alcohol abuse. Congress has fended off past efforts to eliminate the state grants.

Other proposed budget cuts that will face tough questioning on Capitol Hill include elimination of $15 million in grants provided to Californians who retrofit their diesel engines.