By CJ Dablo
So, how hard is it really for California to fix its budget deficit problem? About 120 people showed how it could be done Thursday night, April 28 at the Expo on Atlantic Avenue in Bixby Knolls during an interactive budget workshop.
The event, sponsored by Assemblymembers Bonnie Lowenthal, Warren Furutani and Isadore Hall, III, offered a chance to educate local constituents on how negotiating the state budget works.
“You’re going to have the chance to look at the numbers we look at,” Furutani said of the workshop, but he warned moments later that the process was not going to be an easy one.
“We’re going to have questions and discussions and debate,” Furutani said. “You all will want to holler at us. [But] we’re not afraid. We’ll holler right back at you.”
The interactive budget workshop, produced by Next 10, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization, allowed the group to vote on more than a dozen questions relating to the budget. Using what looked like a television remote control with five buttons, participants looked at major budget issues and voted on how they felt California’s budget should be cut and if taxes should be increased or extended. Before they voted on a key item, Sarah Henry, program director for Next 10, offered a brief explanation of the budget items along with a short explanation of the budget impact. Next 10 gave a projection of how these choices would affect the deficit. The voting results were projected instantly on a large screen at the front of the auditorium.
How much should California support UC and CSU schools? About 33.1 percent of the respondents said to cut funding to these school systems by $500 million each and increase tuition to make up for the loss. That would reduce the deficit by $1 billion.
Should the state increase or scale back Medi-Cal’s healthcare coverage? About 45.6 percent at Thursday’s workshop said they wouldn’t change it. That meant no change to the deficit.
Each time, these respondents were told how their policy decisions would affect the budget deficit in a five-year term, rather than looking at the current deficit problem. Using a projected budget deficit figure of $19.4 billion, voters had to decide whether cutting the budget to key state-run services would be worth the reward of reducing the deficit. On the flip side, participants would have to decide how they felt about increasing taxes during a recession.
Should we raise state income taxes to fund K-12 education? About 65.2 percent said to raise taxes on “upper-income families, reinstating the 10- and 11-percent bracket.” The budget deficit could be reduced by $3.8 billion, according to the estimates offered by Next 10.
“They’re having a problem. It needs to be cut, but the cuts [are] going to hurt somebody,” said Almeta Womack, a retired educator from Long Beach. Womack said she had sympathy for the people who had to make these difficult decisions.
But Womack was mainly concerned with taxes on commercial real estate. She said she owns two commercial buildings with tenants who lease space in the buildings. If they increased her taxes, she said, she’d have to increase her tenants’ rent, something she hadn’t done in some time.
“It might be just enough to tumble them [her tenants],” she said. “And then I’ll be tumbled too because they’ll probably close down or move out, and I’ll be sitting there with empty buildings.”
Others, like 58-year-old Oren Grossi, had no sympathy for the legislators.
“I think they were absolutely worthless,” said Grossi, “and which is why I think they were hiding behind a survey to use up most of the time.”
He said he didn’t think it was hard to fix the budget.
“I could balance it easily, but I wouldn’t do it the way they were doing it. I have a lot of ideas, but they’re not interested in new ideas.” Grossi proposed a few ways to cut spending on public employee wages and pension.
Grossi and others complained about the choices they were given on the survey.
“But we don’t feel comfortable with the choices either,” said Assemblymember Lowenthal, explaining that there is no one right way to fix the budget woes of the state.
“You know, we represent a myriad of people all over California and the path is not clear,” Lowenthal said. “The path to ending this deficit and continuing to progress as a state is not clear, and we deal with it every day. So I appreciate the frustration that people feel, the anger that people feel, because it’s not an easy decision-making process.”
“I think in general people are angry,” said Furutani, who stayed with Lowenthal afterwards to speak to a line of constituents. “People are getting a little bit more desperate, more concerned, so the passion. . .it’s gone up a few notches clearly from the last time we had a similar budget process and discussion. So I think it’s a reflection of the times.”
Others, like graduate social work students, Cynthia Tejeda, 23, and Marissa Palmer, 27, said that they were concerned that the opinions at the meeting didn’t take into consideration the long-term consequences of reducing social services. The Cal State Long Beach students said they saw how state cuts affected their school and how these cuts could affect the clients they already help. Palmer works with mental-health services for children and families. Tejeda works with child welfare clients.
“We see the realities of what happens when they don’t get those services,” Palmer said. “And it’s devastating for them and also for their communities and also for the taxpayers.”
If they didn’t have to follow the rules in Sacramento that require a two-thirds majority vote to make changes to the tax revenue, the participants on Thursday night found a way to create a hypothetical $3.4 billion surplus. But there’s a catch. They didn’t achieve that required consensus.
Those who want to take the survey and see if they could reduce the budget deficit may visit budgetchallenge.org.