Saturday, December 26, 2009




California will soon be hearing a new cry of alarm from its movie tough-guy governor, whose upcoming state of the state speech will be unable to gloss over the reality that this year’s budget shortfall is even worse than last year’s.

Maybe the numbers won’t be quite as high: The deficit staring at state officials might be a “mere” $20 billion instead of the $40 billion or so of one year ago. But that’s only because of last year’s cuts, which lower considerably the starting point measuring the new negatives are measured.

So the pressure for large cuts is again upon us. Some will surely want to lop 15 percent or so from whatever was allocated to all state programs during the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. Some will want to chop even more from programs that took substantial hits last year.

But budget cutters beware: The moves that save you a little money this year might end up costing far more down the line. Of course, because of term limits, many people making key decisions this year will not be around to cope with the consequences even as soon as one year from now. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a prime example.

It’s impossible, of course, to list all the potential moves that might backfire. But here’s one: Cutting funding for battered women’s shelters, a 2009 cut that has been partly rescinded, costs not only untold human misery when women are forced to stay with violent husbands or boyfriends. But the cuts can cost more money than they save when those women show up at emergency rooms, trauma centers and hospitals for treatment of injuries that could have been avoided if they’d found a shelter. No one has yet calculated how much the 2009 closures – some later reversed – will eventually cost.

Similarly, no one can know how much an unheralded upcoming prison system cut might cost.

The prisons are due very soon to lay off three-fourths of their education staff, teachers trying to bring some degree of literacy and other skills to convicts. Back in the 1960s, when education programs were at their peak, California had America’s lowest recidivism rates for ex-convicts.

Not now. The state today sits in the middle ranks in recidivism, partly because of prior staff cuts. “No other program cuts recidivism like education,” says Christopher Brady, holder of two master’s degrees and a teacher at San Quentin State Prison. “You’re blowing your brains out when you cut the part of the prison system that works best.”

Education takes up just 2 percent of the $8 billion prison budget, but 60 percent of that money will dry up. Since crime and illiteracy rates are directly related, this move will have high costs in money and lives lost or immeasurably harmed.

State parks took a $14 million cut last year, almost 10 percent of that system’s previous budget, and they’re sure to be on the firing line again this spring.

The cost of cutting parks is often measured in lost wilderness experience for urban children and recreational opportunities lost to reduced park hours and maintenance. But here, too, budget cuts can lead to actual dollars lost. Not merely via lawsuits from contractors or nearby businesses whose survival is threatened when parks close or reduce their hours.

There’s also show business. Movies and television are areas where state parks have long produced significant money for California. This comes not only when legendary movies like The Virginian (1929) and High Noon (1952) and The Unforgiven (1992) go on location in Jamestown and Columbia state historic parks in Tuolomne County, but also from routine filming.

Fully 526 productions, including 47 feature movies, were filmed in 2008 in California state parks, which double for places like Wales, Korea, Connecticut and the Planet of the Apes. That’s was down 15 from 2007. Close the parks, turn off their water and power, and who knows how many more location shoots will leave the state?

Schwarzenegger talks often about getting business and jobs to stay in California, but his budget cutters may be sending many productions away, along with thousands of jobs. “We don’t know how many productions would leave if parks close,” says one department spokeswoman. The guess here: plenty.

No one suggests the next budget can come without cuts. But budget writers must heed the long-term costs of their choices – in jobs, wages, taxes and human misery – in fields like these, not to mention highways and higher education, for just two more.

Because they were often unthinking last year, they ended up shooting themselves in the foot frequently, even having courts reverse some of decisions, like the one cutting out pay for most home-care workers.

It’s a dilemma so serious that honest politicians this year will have to question whether their stances can really rest solely on party loyalty and ideology, as they often have in the past, or whether practical necessity may override things like “no new taxes” or absolute fealty to the goals of labor unions.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit