Friday, March 18, 2011

REALITY OF BUDGET CUTS STARTS TO HIT HOME

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, MARCH 29, 2011, OR THEREAFTER

BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
“REALITY OF BUDGET CUTS STARTS TO HIT HOME”

Until this month, the impact of California’s impending budget cuts was purely theoretical. Sure, there have been warnings aplenty about cuts to schools, police, adult day care, prisons, Medi-Cal, state parks and much more. But actual cuts were believed to be a thing of the future, not likely to hit home until late summer, if then.

Forget that leisurely timetable. Cities, counties, school districts and other agencies that need to plan ahead have already begun slashing programs and spending to keep them in line with the reimbursements they would get under Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget-balancing plan.

That blueprint calls for a combination of spending cuts and an extension of a few existing taxes due to disappear July 1 unless voters opt in a special election to extend them. So far, no one has seriously considered all the state and local programs that would be cancelled if the tax extensions don’t come. And at mid-March, it was uncertain there will be any special election.

What’s already happened gives some idea of what else might come:

 The Fresno County’s sheriff’s office has laid off 75 workers, resulting primarily in early releases of prisoners from the county jail. The releases began last year and have accelerated in the last month, with most car thieves and burglars exiting jail within hours of being booked because Sheriff Margaret Mims’ new budget-dictated policy is to cut loose all those accused of non-violent property crimes until after they’re sentenced.

"Do I keep a car burglar or do I release a child molester?” she asked a reporter, noting that her budget today is 25 percent less than in 2007. “That's basically what we're down to and we have to keep the most violent and the most serious offenders in the jail space that we do have." Don’t even ask her what happens if she has to slash her budget more and still accept some prisoners currently housed in state prisons, a money-saving tactic that’s part of the Brown plan.

 Santa Cruz County has begun phasing out counseling services for “minor” drug offenders who get treatment under a program set up by the year-2000 Proposition 36. The county usually handles about 300 persons each year in the program, which offers treatment to drug offenders with less than three convictions.

“I think it’s a tragedy,” said Bill Manov, who leads that county’s drug abuse programs. “Evaluation studies conducted by UCLA show that Proposition 36 has saved taxpayers $2.50 (in jail and prison costs) for every $1 invested in treatment.”

If the county can’t offer treatment, many minor offenders will likely be imprisoned at much higher cost and with far less likelihood of staying sober in the long run.

 School districts are abandoning gifted and talented education (GATE) programs wholesale. That’s because while the state budget line for GATE remained fairly stable over the last two years, legislators in 2009 passed a little-noticed change as part of that year’s budget compromise: School districts now may divert GATE money to “any educational purpose” including closing budget deficits.

The result has been large cuts in GATE classes in cities as varied as San Jose, Oakland and Palm Springs.

These are just a few of the cuts already made, and even if some areas have not yet seen them, those kinds of program slashes will arrive everywhere soon.

Brown insists that voters should have a say before cuts go even deeper than they already have. So he castigates Republican legislators unwilling to go along with authorizing a vote before the 2009 tax extensions expire.

One lawmaker he singled out is state Sen. Tony Strickland, a conservative Republican who won election last year by fewer than 900 votes over liberal Democrat Hannah Beth Jackson in a district covering much of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

“Budget cuts are hitting people in Mr. Strickland’s district hard, but he stood on the steps of the Capitol and called for double the cuts,” said Brown press secretary Gil Duran. “Schools in his district are already cutting days (five days in some districts, more in others) off the year due to big deficits. A vital police gang unit in Ventura has been forced to disband. It’s hard to see how deeper cuts to education, public safety and medical assistance to the most vulnerable will benefit the people of his district.”

But police, schools and other public service agencies are already drawing up contingency plans in case Brown is forced into a budget balanced solely by spending cuts. If they’re forced to put those plans into effect, it’s likely every person in California will feel at least some effects.

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Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net

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