Residents ask 'what's goin' on?' with California's budget


A collective gasp escaped the lips of a small audience made up of Santa Monica College professors, students, and community members as State Assemblywoman, Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica), described the $41 billion the state owes the K-12 education system. That amount, nearly half the state's total operating budget, was one of the many budget issues discussed at the "What's Going on?" program hosted by former state senator and SMC's Public Policy Institute Founding Director, Sheila Kuehl, at SMC's Bundy Campus this past Thursday, April 28.

Joining Assemblywoman Brownley as a panelist was Lenny Goldberg, Executive Director of the California Tax Reform Association, who would go over the structural problems of California's tax system.

The majority of the night's discussions and facts were centered on education, both in light of the State's current fiscal situation and a possible all-cuts budget scenario. Brownley, who is chair of the State's Education Committee, explained that deferrals were used as a budget balancing strategy to pay for both community college and K-12 systems; reasons why Prop 98 obligations weren't paid, and why the state essentially owes K-12 such a large sum. 

Brownley went on to describe how K-12 has taken the largest proportional cuts in the last three years, more than any other part of the budget, and roughly $7 billion, or $1,000 per student. As a result, 110 school districts are in fiscal distress, and have the potential of being in fiscal insolvency, which represent 2 million students out of 6 million.

When the talk focused on higher education, Brownley mentioned how 20 to 30 thousand qualified students would be turned away from the UC system, and an additional 10 to 15 thousand qualified students would be turned away from the CSU system on top of the already 30 thousand turned away in the previous year. She went on about how community colleges have suffered a $400 million reduction with a 10 percent increase in fees, resulting in community colleges beings inaccessible to tens of thousands of students across the state.

And according to Brownley, if the state were to go into an all-cuts budget scenario, K-12 would receive an additional $5 to $6 billion in cuts and higher education would receive "catastrophic" reductions. Besides the increase in community college fees from $36 to $66, at least 400,000 transfer students would be turned away, "more students than the CSU system services." Community colleges would also see the elimination of state funding for campus athletics, winter and summer sessions, and be stripped to essential core courses.

Research would be cut for all UC systems except UCLA and UC Berkley, and for the CSU system: "The most thoughtful approach would be to probably close the campus," said Brownley.

Additionally, UC's and CSU's would see reductions in courses, student aid, and longer time spent to graduate amongst others.

 "For the first time, students will be paying more than the state invests," said Brownley.

And besides education, Brownley went down a long list of other cuts in a possible all-cuts budget, chief among them: the closure of more parks, scaling back the Department of Motor Vehicles, reducing parole terms for existing parolees from three years to 18 months, an implementation of two-day-per-month furloughs for government employees, and "huge" operational cuts to the courts.

"It's frustrating to think about the divide between Democrats and Republicans…we can't seem to have the vision for ourselves, at the moment, to move forward, with—I think, a responsible proposal that would really get us out of this dilemma," said Brownley.

Discussed by Goldberg during the second half of the forum were the problems with term limits and the two-thirds vote, as well as the ideology of the anti-tax. 

"If we had a normal government, that is to say majority rule in some ordinary form, then we would have oil severance tax, we would've had at least temporary if not permanent increase taxes on the wealthy right now; we would've had the elimination of these loopholes," said Goldberg. "There's easily five-six-seven-eight billion dollars of low hanging fruit in the tax system."

Not all were happy with the overall tone of the event presented by the three panelists, all Democrats. At one point in the night, Sheila Kuehl suggested that cuts to education was a strategy to dumb-down the general public, which met a vocal disapproval from an exasperated Paul T. Fuller, a member of the SMC Associates Board of Directors.

"There are no businessmen that are Democrats? I didn't get that feeling tonight," said Fuller, who identifies as a Moderate-Republican. "I feel some of it is really tainted in one view as opposed to really trying to solve a problem; there's more manipulating it to point out blame, so that's what the frustration is."