State budget

Agencies scrambling, maybe in vain

“Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” That’s advice Jan Combes received recently regarding Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed 2008-09 budget.

Combes, the Chico Unified School District’s assistant superintendent for business, said she’s hoping the budget proposal is just that—a proposal, one subject to amendment by the Legislature. Yet Combes must prepare for its passage regardless.

From behind her desk at the district offices on East Seventh Street, Combes said preparing for the worst has her worried. “We’re already in dire straits,” she said. “This would cause serious trouble.”

The governor’s proposed budget, handed down on Jan. 10, calls for a 10 percent across-the-board reduction in funding for virtually every entity that relies on state dollars, including a $5 billion reduction in K-12 education funding. To close a $14.5 billion state deficit over the next 18 months, Schwarzenegger has taken an aggressive stance on spending and targeted tender areas for both liberals and conservatives.

Republicans are not enthusiastic about his proposal to spend less on prisons by giving early release to some 22,000 nonviolent inmates, and they have a hard time accepting cuts to education. Democrats are worried about the proposed closure of 48 state parks and the reduction of social services, education included.

For Schwarzenegger, the fierce cutting has the appearance of a desperate 11th-hour move. The man who came into office touting budget reform has done little to remedy California’s ongoing fiscal crisis.

His proposal would more than double the CUSD’s projected $3 million shortfall for the 2008-09 school year, Combes said. “Nobody can survive this level of funding cuts. … We’ve already cut everything that was flexible to meet the demands of this year’s budget.”

The only solution would be to cut jobs, so it is a very real possibility that some teachers and staff will be facing unemployment if the governor’s budget gets passed.

The governor also proposes to cut support on the collegiate side of education. The ripple from that is already being felt: The California State University system announced last Tuesday (Jan. 22) that it will be closing admissions for first-time freshman on Feb. 1, six months earlier than scheduled. Doing so will lessen the number of incoming freshmen, reducing the pressure of a tightened budget.

Meredith Kelley, interim vice-provost for enrollment management at Chico State University, said that typically the school would accept students up until the fall term starts. With $313 million in proposed reductions, however, Chico State will have to reduce the number of applicants it can accept: “We just won’t be able to support as many students as we normally would.”

Kelley said most students have already applied and been accepted, so the impact will be minimal to the university. Nevertheless, the long-term effect of closing the doors to even a few students has Dennis Graham worried.

Graham, vice president of business and finance for the college, said having to turn away students would ultimately affect the state’s future.

“When you deny access to students, you deny future workers for the state of California and upset the economy,” Graham said in a phone interview. “You’re affecting our future employment force.”

Butte County also is bracing for sharp cuts in the budget. County law enforcement, health services and roads are all dependent on state funding.

Brian Haddix, the county’s chief administrative officer, said that, while the details of the total dollar figure are still unclear, the cuts will be “significant.” The biggest impact will be felt within the area of health and human services, he said, especially when it comes to Medi-Cal.

Local clinics accepting Medi-Cal will take a 10 percent reduction in the already rock-bottom rates they are allowed to bill and will have their payments delayed. Patients who rely on Medi-Cal will see the elimination of adult dental care, optometry and speech-therapy coverage.

The Butte County Library system anticipates losing $8,000 in direct state funding, Director Derek Wolfgram reported. Two years ago, the total state contribution to the library’s $3 million annual budget was $125,000. With these proposed cuts on top of reductions already made, that will go down to $70,000.

“It is pretty disappointing,” Wolfgram said. “Support has been falling into place locally, and now we’re losing it from the state.”

Local law-enforcement agencies also face funding shortages. Rural and small-county sheriff’s departments are expected to lose $1.9 million in funding statewide. Butte County will absorb $50,000 worth of those reductions.

Butte County Sheriff Perry Reniff said that number is only a small piece of the pie, however—he’s expecting to see somewhere between $200,000 and $250,000 worth of budget cuts. “It is a considerable hit to the budget,” he said.

Still, the sheriff isn’t worrying just yet. “This will be fought down in the Capitol,” Reniff explained. “When we get closer to July or August, we’ll see what kind of hits we’re really looking at.”

Graham agrees.

“The campus is in a cautious position,” he said, “but there is so much uncertainty when it comes to the budget. We don’t know the legislative reaction yet, and won’t know for some time. The whole campus just needs to be prepared.”

Until then, many officials like Graham and Combes will remain hopeful that they are planning for a crisis that will never come.

Schwarzenegger’s meat-cleaver approach to cutting the budget, with hacks upsetting to both parties, has many observers speculating that he’s pushing tax-averse Republicans to accept some combination of spending cuts and “revenue enhancers,” or new taxes, to solve the budget crisis.

“Again, I’m hoping for the best,” Combes said. “The best is that this [proposal] doesn’t go through.”