I have been in Sacramento as a legislator less than four months. I ran for office because, as head of one of the state’s largest child care service providers and as a single mother with a child in public school, I was appalled at the waves of cuts to which California has, in recent years, subjected social services and public programs upon which millions of families rely. When I arrived, despite being a freshman in the Assembly, I asked to serve on the Budget Subcommittee on Health and Human Services because that is where the battle for the dollars necessary to implement programs must be fought. As the saying goes, be careful what you ask for! Speaker John Perez appointed me chair of the committee.
The problem is that California is broke, in fact in deep debt! Combined with the anti-tax fever gripping California, there is a double-whammy impact on Blacks in the state. Massive downsizing of the government workforce, disproportionately hurting African Americans for whom public sector employment has been the primary ladder leading upward into the middle-class since World War II, has begun and will accelerate. The combination of a battered economy and popular opposition to raising government revenues leaves us staring at a 26 billion dollar deficit which the state is constitutionally and pragmatically obliged to eliminate.
Without new revenues, severe cuts to our colleges and universities, prisons, public safety, child care, foster care and critical health programs will become inevitable. Governor Brown is offering a budget compromise to the voters of California: He’s called upon the Legislature to cut the deficit in half, to reduce expenditures by $12.5 billion. Once those cuts are agreed to, he said he would ask voters on the June ballot to extend tax revenues that the state currently receives, but which are soon due to expire, just long enough to eliminate the other half of the deficit. If the Republicans allow it and the voters agree, we will have put our house in financial order. If, however, voters choose not to approve the temporary tax extensions, Brown said he would balance the budget by cutting another $13 billion out of the public sector economy.
I took a hard look at this proposal. I, who went to Sacramento to protect services, prevent cuts[SN1] and leave intact the safety net, found no budget alternative more likely to accomplish those ends than the brutally frugal one Jerry Brown had lain on the table. I searched. I listened to every alternative proposed, read every scenario for saving or leveraging state funds, made suggestions based on my experience and expertise[SN2], and engaged in countless strategy sessions with fellow legislators and community advocates about saving services we agreed are already under-funded and over-stretched. We could shut down all of California’s universities and prisons, and still not have enough money to satisfy this deficit’s appetite. I do not have the luxury of self-delusion with so much at stake, and voters did not elect me to tell them less than the truth: The only way I can see to avert catastrophe is to brace ourselves for major program reductions.
Sacrifices must be made, and triage is the order of the day. That includes programs highly praised and sorely needed in my own district which cannot be spared. Although I know firsthand, for instance, how powerful a tool community redevelopment agencies are for eliminating blight, regenerating neighborhoods and leveraging tax dollars for maximum local benefit, I also know that they siphon nearly $2 billion annually from state coffers–money the state does not now have.
The Legislature has listened both to the needs of Californians for services and to their need to lighten the burden of the state’s expenses during these hard economic times. We have fashioned a compromise that none will love–everybody takes a hit. Polls show that most voters respect this approach, and express willingness to shoulder the burden of extended taxes in return for a smaller government footprint in their lives. Not only do I have confidence in California voters on this critical matter, but I believe we will all benefit from a fresh start. As prosperity returns, I believe we will again embrace a progressive future for our great state. It is time to take the first hard but hopeful step.