FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, JUNE 16, 2009, OR THEREAFTER
BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
"DUMP STATE PROGRAMS; THEN LEARN WHY THEY'RE NEEDED"
Ancient Egyptians first observed that only when we eliminate traditions do we discover why they became traditions in the first place.
We modern Californians who now appear likely to eliminate scores of government programs may be about to discover the truth of that old saying. The cuts are coming because of a budget deficit estimated to exceed $21 billion over the next two years even with the $16 billion worth of increased sales, income and car taxes approved by state legislators last February.
Once those programs are gone, we will likely learn why many of them were deemed necessary by voters and legislators of the not so distant past. Not even public employee union contracts will save tens of thousands of workers from layoffs.
This was assured when Propositions 1A-1E lost by large margins in the May special election, a result interpreted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as a public mandate to abandon previous plans for raising more than $5 billion via revenue anticipation warrants, a method by which state and local governments often borrow on Wall Street.
Some basic items are now on the chopping block. One proposal would eliminate the Healthy Families program that covers 942,000 children in families barely above the official poverty line. Do this and the state risks epidemics of diseases like measles and mumps, onetime scourges now kept in check by vaccinations. Do this and emergency rooms - which by federal law cannot turn most patients away - could be swamped. It's uncertain who would pay them for their work. Don't pay them and widespread hospital closures may ensue. "No analysis (of this) has been done," conceded state finance director Mike Genest.
Medi-Cal cuts also are contemplated, with as many as 1.9 million Californians of all ages losing health care coverage over the next three years, according to the non-partisan California Budget Project. This also imperils hospitals and emergency rooms.
Public schools will increase class sizes and might have to cut as much as a week and a half off the school year. Most are cutting back sharply on summer schools. Only time will tell how these moves affect pupil performance and the state's economic future.
Then there are state parks, visited by 79 million persons last year. Schwarzenegger's immediate post-election budget proposal called for cutting all their state funding for two years, leaving them to operate with nothing more than entrance and parking fees. The visitor tally means the average Californian visited a state park more than twice last year. About 200 state parks could be closed if current entrance and parking fees remain stable. Parks officials now are contemplating price increases of as much as 100 percent in order to keep some units open.
Not that the public couldn't get into closed state parks by climbing fences or skirting around closed gates. But they wouldn't have parking facilities, rest rooms, campgrounds, lifeguards and other amenities normally deemed necessary. Imagine California without jewels like Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe, Torrey Pines Reserve near San Diego or the Hearst Castle near San Luis Obispo.
Then there's the proposed $750 million cut to the state's university systems, which would lead not only to lower enrollment, but also could spur a brain drain if frozen salaries drive off first-rate faculty. Add to this the proposed elimination of Cal-Grant scholarships long given low-income students and Cal State and University of California campuses might become the the exclusive property of the rich and upper middle class.
Also contemplated are an end to or suspension of the state's welfare-to-work program, release of tens of thousands of nonviolent prisoners and an end to poison control programs, just to name a few. It's easy to imagine the outcry if these cuts produce deaths from poison or a crime wave, as could happen. This at the same time cities and counties shrink police forces and fire departments because of a planned $2 billion "revenue shift" from their coffers to the state.
Many of these cruel moves, of course, do not have to happen. Change the rules under which some real estate now escapes reassessment to current market values when it changes hands and state and local governments might gain as much as $12 billion in yearly revenue. Consider going to a "split roll" property tax system where businesses pay more than residential properties and much more could be raised.
But so far, lawmakers have not even contemplated those moves. Nor have they yet eliminated several barely useful commissions and boards that often serve as halfway houses for termed-out legislators. Perhaps examining the grave consequences of the contemplated budget cuts will open legislative eyes to the possibility of defying the powerful industrial and real estate lobbies that resist logical changes to the current taxation system. Or, more likely, not.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net