Budget cuts start to pinch

As recession lengthens, citizens start to get the meaning of cutting budgets

Assemblymember Sheila Leslie, at a recent function with Latino leader Theresa Navarro, says there is little understanding of the difficulty of decisions on funding programs the public demands.

Assemblymember Sheila Leslie, at a recent function with Latino leader Theresa Navarro, says there is little understanding of the difficulty of decisions on funding programs the public demands.

Photo By dennis myers

After the first news broke that Jaycee Dugard, a 29-year-old woman who had been stolen from a Lake Tahoe street at age 11 and held prisoner ever since, had been rescued in California, a second wave of reports came in.

The second-round report that most jolted a lot of people was one in which Contra Costa County Sheriff Warren Rupf said there had been a chance to rescue Dugard in 2006, but it didn’t happen. Sheriff’s officers had received a 911 call about someone living in a tent in the backyard of the couple now accused of kidnapping and holding Dugard. A deputy gave a warning to the occupants but did not inspect the homesite. He probably had no authority to enter the property.

Who-to-blame sentiment swept across the West as news spread, but in Contra Costa County itself, where people were more familiar with the workforce limitations on the sheriff’s office—the county this year has been dealing with an $18 million deficit—a different kind of discussion was going on.

At an online news forum, some Contra Costa citizens who blamed the police were answered by residents who asked whether the problem had been caused by underfunded law enforcement and too few officers for follow-up calls.

“Contra Costa SO [sheriff’s office] is one of the lowest paid departments around already—do you want the deputies to qualify for food stamps?” wrote one.

“There are a lot of people in police work that could have taken much higher paying positions in the private sector but they didn’t because they like serving the community as police officers,” wrote another.

“To all you cops that think you earn your pay BITE ME!!!!!” replied another. “You know darn well that you are living the easy life on the backs of the real men and women that really do work.”

That prompted this response: “Tell these officers that they’re earning too much in salaries and benefits. Oh my, you can’t because they’re DEAD, and they DIED in the line of duty.”

All this happened on the day that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ended budget-cutting furloughs at California Highway Patrol 911 call centers because response times were rising.

A few days earlier an opinion survey commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal found Nevadans wanted services cut rather than taxes raised.

“The statewide poll of 400 registered voters found 51 percent would favor spending cuts compared with 35 percent who would back tax increases,” the newspaper reported. “Eleven percent said there should be a combination of tax increases and spending cuts.”

But up north in the Reno Gazette-Journal, resident Steve Davis’s letter to the editor faulted budget cutting.

“If my math is correct, based on the figures in your article, Northern Nevada gets more than 21 billion gallons of clean, fresh water from extra snowmelt generated by the cloud seeding for only $550,000,” Davis wrote. “This works out to less than three one-thousandths of a penny per gallon for some of the purest water in the nation. It would be a bargain at 10 times the price. Apparently, our elected officials have lost their minds. How shortsighted can they be? Less water means less development and less tax revenue, so they are being penny wise and pound foolish.”

Meanwhile, Las Vegas City Life reported that since the state consumer affairs office closed for budget reasons in July, “reports of every type of scam imaginable are up, state officials and local FBI agents say: Mortgage fraud (especially in the Latino community), identity theft, real estate scams, mail fraud, telemarketing and auto repair fraud.”

The people who have to make those kinds of budget decisions say that in these hard times the public is learning some of the complexities of taxes versus spending. Those sweeping election year promises that budgets could be cut without hurting services are proving to be another kind of consumer fraud. And both candidate promises and media set-ups such as the Review-Journal poll frame the issue as a simple one.

Assemblymember Sheila Leslie of Washoe County said it’s not that easy to decide where to cut.

“I did not understand, no,” she said of her arrival at the Nevada Legislature in 1999.

“I think first-time candidates, they just can’t possibly comprehend the difficult decisions they’re going to have to make.”

That’s especially true of those who go onto the budget committees, she said.

And the decisions are not simple ones. It’s not likely to be a choice between, say, prison guards and arts funding or street paving and basket weaving classes.

Leslie said it’s more likely to be the choice legislators faced this year over what to do with a methamphetamine prevention program that Nevada First Lady Dawn Gibbons had created, a choice Leslie called heartbreaking.

“Because for years we have underfunded both prevention and treatment, and then Dawn was able to get in the budget … that money for methamphetamine prevention. I think it was a million dollars—it was a significant … amount of money. And we have made progress. Methamphetamine use, especially among kids, has decreased.”

When that program came before the legislative money committees this year, the choice was painful.

“It was very clear, by the time we got to the substance abuse budget—and we’re cutting other budgets, you know—there was no way we could add, and in fact, there was a cut that had to be taken. And [the governor’s recommended budget] had taken it all out of treatment. And what we ended up doing was taking it out of prevention! Because I just could not live with myself—as important as prevention is, and as much as I believe in it—knowing what the waiting list [is] for people … who need treatment today, I led the committee down the path, and we took it from prevention, which has upset a lot of my colleagues and good friends. But that’s the kind of choices we had to make.”

Leslie said that early in her legislative service she was cautioned by Republican Sen. William Raggio of Washoe County to be restrained in what she said and not raise expectations. Raggio himself says he’s had to cut programs that he strongly favored.

“I can look at areas like parole and probation that I’ve always felt are underfunded,” he said. “More particularly in health and human service areas. You know, those are areas, there’s a limit to what you can cut.”

Some reporters have in recent years created scenarios for candidates—giving a candidate a hundred dollars in play money to distribute before the cameras among categories of government spending—transportation, education, and so on. But that oversimplification rarely reflects the kind of decision budget officials face. It’s more likely to be whether to continue funding worthy programs like prenatal care or closure of abandoned mine shafts.

Many voters believe a pool of waste exists in every government, but when critics are asked for specifics, they frequently do not pan out. In 2003, GOP members in the Nevada Assembly released an alternative budget that would have averted approval of that year’s tax hikes, or so Republicans said. It turned out to include cuts already made in the governor’s budget recommendations.

When Schwarzenegger became governor, business groups delivered their files on waste in government to his office, but those files tended to be filled with news clippings, anecdotes and other dubious material that didn’t prove out.