The unkindest cuts

California budget crisis may decimate schools, public health care and other social services

California’s already-frayed social safety net is in danger of being shredded by proposed budget cuts.

California’s already-frayed social safety net is in danger of being shredded by proposed budget cuts.

Lori Jablonski has been teaching at C.K. McClatchy High School for a decade. Every year, she helps seniors with the process of transitioning into the “real world” and making the leap to pursue a college education or immediate employment. For the last few seasons, however, the change has been increasingly difficult.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” Jablonski said. “I see kids accepted to [University of California schools] whose parents work for the state. Their parents get furloughed, they don’t have enough money to go to the schools they want to, maybe they go somewhere else or get discouraged and don’t go at all. And at the same time, more and more of our programs are being cut.”

As this issue was going to press, the governor and the Legislature reached an agreement on the fiscal 2009 budget, filling a $26.3 billion hole with a combination of program cuts and tax increases.

That comes on top of the $40 billion hole filled last February. Any way you slice it, the cuts have been and will continue to be devastating.

“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it,” Jablonski said. “Everything is just kind of paralyzed, and when it’s not paralyzed, it’s more cuts. Summer school, college counseling, arts and music programs—it’s all gone, one right after the other. I see people affected on every level.”

From the layman’s perspective, the solution to the state’s budget woes seems fairly simple: Cut some spending, raise some taxes, balance the budget. Republicans generally prefer cutting social services, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had proposed massive cuts to senior-citizen services, K-14 education, persons with disabilities and state workers, among others.

On July 15, Jablonski joined roughly 200 other representatives from what Gov. Schwarzenegger calls “special-interest groups” at the Capitol. There was a sense of desperation in the air as citizens dependent on a wide variety of state-provided services pleaded for an end to the cuts.

Although he suffers from cerebral palsy, Kenneth Johnson, 38, also at the protest, is snappy, outgoing and politically passionate. With the aid of paratransit vehicles and in-home support services, he has been able to travel and pursue employment in Sacramento since relocating here earlier this year to be with his fiancée. He’s fearful he’ll no longer be self-reliant if the services he depends on are cut.

“With the budget cuts that [the governor] is trying to do, all those services can be taken away,” Johnson said. “You take those away, you take independence away from people and force people to move into state-run facilities. In those facilities, they become less than human.”

The disabled community, he feels, has grown tired of being shunted by the current administration.

“Growing up, my parents always told me: ‘You may have cerebral palsy, but it doesn’t have you,’” he said. “I know that. But [Gov. Schwarzenegger] doesn’t.”

Johnson is just one of thousands of people endangered by the cuts proposed by the governor and the Legislature.

“We’re just trying to advocate for older people who can’t,” said Carol Bailey, a leader with Health Care for All San Joaquin who routinely travels to Sacramento to protest insufficient funds. “Medi-Cal folks are being cut from podiatry and dental work, and those are essential services! People who can’t leave their homes are losing the meals brought to them during the week. Wheelchair-bound quadriplegics are denied in-home care for 25 percent of the day. People like that can’t get up here. So we have to.”

Though each individual group’s ultimate goal was to protest for their own respective cause, protesters did not hesitate to stand up for everyone threatened by the budget knife.

“We are here today because we represent the weak people,” said Lucia Bertrand, a longtime activist joining the crowd. “People who are handicapped, the elderly. People who have worked their whole lives for the country and the state who have had taxes taken out [of their paychecks]. And now that we need that money, to keep people in their homes with people they love and out of institutions, they’re gonna take it away.

“Like this boy,” she continued, pointing to a small boy in a wheelchair who watched the speaker at the podium with rapt attention. “He was born with muscular dystrophy, and he needs a caretaker for the rest of his life. If they cut support for his mother, where is he going to be?”

With the new budget looming on the horizon, it is easy to get discouraged, according to Bertrand and Bailey. To them, the governor’s reported optimism is testament to his apathy about those whom he has pledged to serve.

“We have a participatory government in this country. Whether we like it or not, whether it works or not, we need to kick people in the rear, get them out of their chair and get them out here to talk to [the legislators]. Because [Gov. Schwarzenegger] is a bully!” Bailey burst forth. “He’s a bully, and I think his diversionary tactics are ludicrous. … It’s about positive action and respect, and there is no respect for any group here deemed a ‘special interest’ by the bully.”

For Johnson, it is not just a matter of respect. It is a matter of independence and, ultimately, for him as well as many others, one of survival.

“Common sense tells you that people are going to die,” Nell Ranta of Elk Grove said bluntly at Wednesday’s protest. “Children are going to die. And disabled people, and seniors. I just don’t know how anyone can feel we can get along like this.”