First 5 fights to keep state funding

FRESNO, Calif.

Its "Play and Grow" time at Exceptional Parents Unlimited in Fresno -- an agency that helps children and families with special needs. According to First 5, the future of thousands of special needs kids is in jeopardy in Fresno County, Madera County and Merced County.

That is why the three commissions have taken the historic step of suing the State of California. They filed an injunction Tuesday to stop the state from taking $1-billion from the agency's reserves statewide.

"For us it really is historic in the sense that we hear people say we stand for kids, but how often do people really do it. So for us this is really standing and taking action to protect our kids," said Kendra Rogers with First 5 Fresno County.

Funding for First 5 comes from tobacco taxes, approved through Proposition 10 in 1998. First Five's lawsuit argues the governor and legislators are breaking the law and disregarding the will of voters.

"This is smoker's money, this is not general funds money -- and the writers of the act said you cannot supplant with Prop 10 money, meaning you cannot take the money and put it in place where other state and general fund money belongs," said Rogers.

If left unchallenged, the state's take of $1-billion from First 5 means Fresno County will lose $17-million, Madera County $3.2-million and Merced County $3.1-million.

"We all need money, all of our budgets are tight, but we cannot break the law. We cannot fix our budget problems by breaking the law and we certainly cannot do it by stepping on kids."

For agencies like Exceptional Parents Unlimited (E.P.U.), which receives 40-percent of its funding from First 5, it will mean limiting services to the hundreds of families they serve every week.

"So many wonderful services have been able to be provided to young children and families that were not here before -- and to think to go backward and having to reduce those it very frightening," said Marion Karian with Exceptional Parents Unlimited.

There are 58 First-5 commissions in California. Only Fresno, Madera and Merced County chapters are involved in the lawsuit against the state.

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