Calif. budget proposal draws faint praise, criticism

The California state capitol building in Sacramento.
The California state capitol building in Sacramento. Gravitywave/Flickr (cc by-nc-nd)

California educators, health advocates and economists are not happy with the state's budget proposal, but despite deferred payments and the likelihood of additional cuts to programs, the overall message is "it could have been worse."

Lupita Cortez Alcalá, deputy superintendent of government affairs and charter development branch in the California Department of Education, told Patt Morrison today that the budget proposal was "disappointing, but not surprising."

While not as bad as the possible budget proposed in Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's May revision, Alcalá noted that the budget would delay, not cut, some of the funding, which could probably come in July instead of spring.

Larger school districts will be able to weather the delay with loans, unlike smaller districts.

"Charter schools will suffer," Alcalá said. "Smaller districts will have trouble getting loans."

School districts that had adjusted their expected funding to reflect the drastic changes in Gov. Schwarzenegger's May revision will have more breathing room than the revision's low funding of $275 per child.

When asked if there was an escape clause in Proposition 98, the 1988 ballot measure to esnure a minimum percentage of the state budget for K-14 education, Alcalá noted that it is possible to suspend Proposition 98.

According to Alcalá, the likely candidates to be cut across school districts are supplemental instructional classes, GATE programs and art programs, among others - the "things that make school culture what it is," she said.

Despite those expected cuts, Ramon Cortines, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, has several plans to protect the LAUSD, including his plan to "save some 3,000 jobs," he said.

"If you're asking about art and music," Cortines said, "that's not going away."

One of Cortines' models seeks to reinstate the week of instruction cut from next year's proposed schedule which was removed in an effort to save expenses. Cortines is hesitant of the possibility of borrowing funds to offset the cuts.

"I just don't know who we'd borrow from," Cortines said. "People are looking not just at the school district, but the state."

There is some good news, according to Jack Scott, chancellor of the California Community College system: enrollment is still growing, and the 60,000 additional students enrolled in the system will bring $126 million of the growth fund.

There are still 200,000 students that aren't being funded. Funding for the community colleges is still deficient compared to 2008-09 levels and the system has cut most of its avocational courses, but Scott is ecstatic that Schwarzenegger recently signed a bill into law easing student transfer into four-year universities, which will ease overenrollment somewhat.

The real drop in enrollment has been from first-time students, who often are the last to enroll in courses.

"We're still not meeting demand," Scott said. "140,000 students came to our doors, looked around, saw no room and left."

Despite these tales of woe, experts generally took a cautiously tolerant position of the budget.

"It absolutely could've been worse," said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access, the statewide health care consumer advocacy coalition. Wright hopes that the cuts that were left in will be mitigated by additional federal funds, as well as the governor's line-item veto.

If there was one shared sentiment, it was dissatisfcation with the state's treatment of the budget's symptoms, not the cause. Wright noted that this budget - already 99 days late - will solve issues for the short-term but will return once planning for the 2011 budgetary year begins.

"We are dealing with a three-year situation," said Chris Thornburg, founding principal of Beacon Economics. "The [legislature] is treating the problem as if it could be pushed off for another year and it'll be magically solved."

Thornburg emphasized the need for a more solvent revenue stream and greater cooperation between tax-increasing Democrats and small-government Republicans, but noted that those politicians who tried to find the middleground were "pilloried by their own parties."

However, Thornburg was not receptive to proposals to reduce the two-thirds consensus of the legislature to increase taxes, as required by Proposition 13.

Though technically a solution, Thornburg said, that would eliminate the Republican veto and ensure Democratic control of the legislature. Cooperation between parties would carry the state much farther than single-party authority.

KPCC's Julie Small provided audio to this report.

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