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Budget Bovines

They may be sacred cows on paper, but they're not exactly mooing happily

By Allie Gottlieb

EVER SINCE California's chief executive unleashed his latest scheme to balance the state's $99 billion budget, most of the public attention has been cast on the losers. But there are supposedly some winners in this year's budget crunch. Some have the good fortune to be politically correct or publicly relevant in these post-9/11 times, and others just belong to large voting blocks, like teachers, the elderly and parents.

For a refreshing change in a depressing fiscal season, let's take a look at the ones rolling in dough, or at least those who seem to be.

Governor's Pets

Gov. Gray Davis is clear about his turn-ons. He likes K-12 education, children's health, public safety and critical seniors' programs. Well, that's what he says in his budget highlight breakdown. The giant Medi-Cal cuts he recommends (which include axing $88 million divided among the counties) sort of deflate his claim to love children's health programs--at least for the poor. Nit-picking aside, here are the four groups tapped with the happy end of the governor's funding stick.

Gov. Gray "Education remains my top priority" Davis is, according to naysaying Republicans, gambling with future budgets by too richly funding schools and increasing general fund K-12 spending by $270 million over 2001-02. But for now, that means yea for schools with lots of students, who go up in value to $7,183 a piece. That's a 25 percent rise in worth over the students of 1998-99. Davis also wants to kick in $738 million in federal funds to pay for training teachers to avoid leaving any kids behind. This is the kind of talk local school administrators must live for.

But behold, some people can only believe it when they see it--as cash in hand. San Jose Unified schools chief Dr. Linda Murray, for instance, seems like a bit of a party pooper. Granted, Murray was thrilled to hear that, as it stands, the governor's budget proposal gives it up for K-12. She's especially pleased that Davis champions the novel concept that every kid should get a textbook.

"That's very good news," she told Metro. "We were worried about that."

But Murray's not ready to take the kids to Vegas yet. She's leery about what will stay in the state's budget once it's ravaged by the Legislature. "The revenues are just not there," she said. She expects less cash for public schools in the final budget. She just hopes any ultimate reduction isn't too bad and that it doesn't come in the form of midstream interrupting cuts halfway through the school year.

Yes, More Prisons!

It's hard to argue with public safety during a period defined by the spooky revelation that the United States is not invincible. Of course, that means vigilantly locking up the bad guys and the druggies. Here's a related market-value fun fact: California prisons spend about $27,000 a year in taxpayer money for each convict. That's about $20,000 more than for a K-12 student.

To keep the public safe, Davis proposes investing $8.2 billion in the California Department of Corrections and other "peace officer"-type agencies. This is a .7 percent increase over last year, with corrections hogging nearly 60 percent of the pie chart that represents cash. Also on the chart are the Department of Justice with $620 million, the Youth Authority with $416 million and Ponch, Jon and the other highway cops with $1.2 billion.

One would imagine "Woo-hoo!" emanating from somewhere in the CDC. When actually asked, though, that's not the response.

"I think everybody's kind of nervous about the budget," confides Margot Bach, CDC spokesperson. Bach explains that the department is entitled to taxpayer funds. "We are required to incarcerate people for the sentence they are given with the money we get," she says, adding that she's concerned that the department budget's growth keep up with the cost of running jails and prisons.

"We're hoping that the money we get will cover some of these increased costs. ... Some of these things are required by the constitution." For example, the department has to provide inmates with medical care, the price of which is climbing. Further, she says, the department needs to stock up on prison medical staff, generally an expensive endeavor.

Perhaps Davis could hammer out a nice contract for some medical people with a 30 percent raise, like the one he arranged with the prison guards earlier this year. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (which likes to give money to governors and dropped a couple hundred thou into Davis' 2002 campaign prior to receiving its sweet new contract) notes on its website that the officer turnover rate has dropped to 8 percent from 25 percent in 1980. At least it sounds like the guards are happier than they used to be.

The Young and the Restless

Old people are taking over California. The state's Department of Aging warns that "in California, the elderly population is expected to grow more than twice as fast as the total population."

The governor claims to be on their side. "No one has higher regard for the men and women who built this state," Davis announced in a May 16 press release touting his commitment to doling out money for seniors' programs. "I took special care to protect those programs seniors rely on most," he added.

But seniors aren't exactly clicking the heels of their Clarks. In fact, some are quite ticked off by Davis' budget proposal.

"What's happening is that the cuts are taking place in the most critical areas," says Arnie Godmantz, a legislative liaison in Sacramento with the Gray Panthers, a national advocacy group for seniors. "The cuts are way disproportionate to the needs."

Godmantz says that while the amount to be slashed from programs serving seniors hasn't been clearly outlined yet, it looks like health-care services will take the biggest hit. "There's something very, very wrong in the way this is all taking place," Godmantz sums up.

Perhaps Godmantz is just a crotchety complainer. Maybe things look brighter in the world of youth.

Not. Healthy kids also rank among the governor's few stated priorities. Despite that fact, Davis' budget proposal is "very unpleasant to kids' health programs," according Cliff O'Connor, chief deputy director of the Santa Clara County Social Services Agency, which helps the cash-poor with Medi-Cal and other assistance.

The agency's caseloads have gone up by about 18 percent since a year ago, O'Connor says. Meanwhile, Davis proposes cutting the county's estimated $50 million Medi-Cal budget by about 20 percent.

"There's been a lot of public policy thrust toward getting kids health insurance," O'Connor says. "So it's kind of discouraging to be working that hard and then take a cut like this."

Robert Sillen, executive director of Santa Clara Valley Health and Hospital System, also responds joylessly to the budget proposal. He complains about the prohibitive Medi-Cal red tape the governor proposes to reinstate after it was just dropped in January. Sillen says that if Medi-Cal recipients are forced to reapply for their health insurance every three months (instead of yearly) as Davis wants, it'll drive many off the program. "It's all very bad and nasty," he says.

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From the May 30-June 5, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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