While the nation was transfixed by the tragedy in Tucson, California’s new governor, Jerry Brown, announced Monday a plan that could dramatically alter the state’s welfare, health care, education and other programs.
In office only a week, Brown announced drastic cuts to the programs with the goal of balancing the state’s off-kilter budget — which has a deficit of $25 billion and counting– over the next 18 months.
Referring to the shooting in Arizona, Brown declared: “We have a lot of security; we’re very careful.” But that was his only non-budget comment in a 46-minute news conference devoted to his plan to rescue the nation’s largest state from insolvency. He wants to cut $12.5 billion in current state spending, without what he called the “gimmicks and tricks” used over the last 10 years.
Addressing a crowd of reporters with a whirlwind of cuts and projections in a PowerPoint presentation, Brown seemed to be eager to get through the painful series of reductions — reductions that could especially hurt the poor in this state of nearly 40 million people.
He’s proposing to cut the wages of state workers who aren’t covered by union contracts by 8 to 10 percent. He’s also chopping $1 billion from the state’s universities — perhaps the nation’s top public university system — where tuition has risen dramatically in recent years. Following serious cuts initiated by former Gov. Schwarzenegger, Brown also will be cutting welfare, social services and health care for the poor.
He wants to dismantle state-funded local redevelopment agencies and use the money saved to support schools. In fact, the only area that he spared is K-12 schools, which have already been subject to cutbacks. He wants to take money away from a voter-approved mental health program that is funded by a tax on millionaires and turn that revenue over the general fund.
None of this will be easy, as constituent groups are expected to fight for their favorite programs. Many Democrats won’t like the cuts; but the Democratic leader of the state senate, Darrell Steinberg, said: “As unappealing and painful as the Governor’s proposed budget is, the only thing worse is to allow this fiscal crisis to linger.”
Brown explained his choice of cuts by stating: “Where the money goes is where the money has to be cut. It’s that simple.”
Republicans won’t like the fact that Brown wants to extend by five years a series of temporary tax increases enacted in 2009. To get them extended, he intends to go to the voters in June, after the legislature makes the big cuts he’s requested. But Brown is optimistic that his straight talk and decisive action — plus a big campaign — will convince voters and legislators to back him.
“It’s better to take our medicine now,” he said. “I’m trying to forge a consensus and get people out of their ideological positions.” At the same time, he acknowledged that the changes will be very hard “for someone just off welfare who needs child care.”
“All across America, people have been living in debt,” the governor said. But, he predicted, some will say, “thank God we’re finally facing the music.”
It looks to be an emotion-packed six months for politicians and lobbyists in Sacramento — and an uncertain time for those who depend on state programs to keep them afloat.