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State and local governments slash spending
Attack of the budget-cutters

March 29, 2002 | Pages 6 and 7

WHEN GOVERNORS from the 50 states met earlier this year in Washington, D.C., for the annual meeting of the National Governors Association, they didn't have good news. They estimated that their state governments faced a combined budget shortfall of almost $50 billion.

And they talked about the "solution" to the crisis that just about every state was carrying out. Cuts, cuts and more cuts.

In Washington, the political establishment has been celebrating an upturn in economic statistics. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill made headlines when he wondered whether the U.S. economy was ever in a recession at all.

But for ordinary people, it sure feels like one. The full impact is often hidden--because the budget ax is falling hardest at state and local levels. Schools, health care, day care, food stamps--these and many other programs are being hammered across the country, usually with little or no attention from the mainstream media.

But at the same time, people angered by the cuts have mobilized in countless small demonstrations--likewise ignored by the media. As ELIZABETH SCHULTE reports, these protesters have a message for the budget-cutters, from the White House on down: Enough is enough.

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POOR CHILDREN and the mentally ill. They're on the top of Illinois Gov. George Ryan's list. As victims for the state budget chopping block, that is.

In announcing his budget proposal for the next fiscal year, which begins in June, Ryan said the state was facing a shortfall and would have to tighten its belt. Translation: The state's most vulnerable residents will have their belts tightened for them.

First, Ryan wants to close a center for the mentally ill in downstate Peoria--and downsize two other facilities. Then, he's going after day care for low-income workers.

Currently, Illinois underwrites day-care expenses for more than 200,000 children--with parents responsible for a co-payment that varies by income and number of children. Ryan wants to increase the co-pay by a minimum of 10 percent--and, in some instances, double it.

That's a disaster in the making for Tonya Doss. Tonya makes $25,000 a year as an instructional assistant at the Chicago Board of Education--and currently pays $200 monthly to send her 4-year-old twins to day care. "I don't know where to cut to accommodate the changes," she said. "That's a lot of money to me. I would have to cut something in order to keep my children here."

But that's not all there is to Ryan's budget plan. He also wants to cut payments to nursing homes, doctors, dentists and pharmacists who provide care to the poor through the state Medicaid program.

Illinois schools will be hit by the first spending cut in a decade, and Ryan wants to lay off 3,800 state workers.

Of course, Ryan isn't the only governor wielding the budget ax. Health care is often first to go. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

--Maryland wants to save $20 million by cutting off many of the 16,000 uninsured patients who rely on the state for mental health services.

--The Arkansas Department of Health Services plans to reduce state Medicaid expenditures by $13 million by getting rid of a program for people with high medical expenses and cutting back on coverage for disabled children who require home health care.

--Indiana wants to cut Medicaid funding by $251.1 million through tightened eligibility restrictions and reduced benefits for drugs, nursing homes and dental care.

Meanwhile, programs that aid the poor--such as Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF), which provides cash assistance and work support to low-income families with children--are also taking a beating. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that 35 states have already cut aid to poor families, and more will follow.

But statistics alone don't describe the havoc that people--who depend on these programs to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads--are going through.

And in addition to recipients, state workers are feeling the cuts. Alvin Bettencourt, a 23-year-old social worker who speaks Spanish and Portuguese, was one of the hundreds of social workers laid off by the Massachusetts Department of Social Services.

Bettencourt told the Boston Globe about how the cut affected his five-month fight to gain the trust of one foster child. "I called him to tell him that I wasn't going to be working with him anymore," Bettencourt said. "I told him my position had been eliminated. He just said, 'Okay,' and hung up. I felt so bad. He's bounced around to so many placements over the years. He's had seven social workers, and now he lost another."

The case will probably go to Rosa Tejada--because she's the only Spanish-speaking social worker left in her office. "The whole situation is pretty crucial, because we're talking about people's lives, and not just people, but children, who can't defend themselves," Tejada said.

Even as they slash away at desperately needed social programs, the politicians are finding ways to continue spending on other priorities. In California, for example, while other state agencies brace for billions of dollars in cuts, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) will get to spend more money next year.

Why? To help in the fight against terrorism.

The CHP plans to hire more than 300 new officers, expand its overtime budget and add five new helicopters to its fleet of nine--so that major urban areas can be patrolled 24 hours a day. Each helicopter costs $3.1 million to buy and $320 an hour to operate.

These are the warped budget priorities of state governments--money for expensive toys and cops that won't do a thing to make the world a safer place, while teachers go without a decent wage and poverty programs are slashed.

Make the bosses pay

UNLIKE THE federal government, every state government but one is required to balance its budget each year.

After years of surpluses, the recession has caused budget shortfalls. Most states have picked the same way to close the gap--slash spending. But there are other options.

How about eliminating corporate welfare? States lose billions of dollars each year when corporations use loopholes to avoid taxes--and when wealthy individuals benefit from estate-tax exemptions.

According to the Wall Street Journal, business tax breaks will cost an estimated $14.7 billion over three years for the 46 states that base their tax codes on the federal system. Compared to the massive sums given away to corporations in tax breaks, the money that states are slashing from social spending programs is chump change.

The best solution to the budget crisis is a simple one: Tax the rich!

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"Building the fight from the ground up"

JESSE MULDOON, a teacher in Oakland, Calif., and a member of the California Teachers' Association, describes the impact of state budget cuts in the schools.

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THE OAKLAND school district ranks among the lowest in the state of California. The ranking is based on standardized test scores, which test for the socio-economic status of students, not for real intelligence.

They also reflect the resources of the district: the lower the scores, the less resources. The higher performing (read: wealthy) districts tend not to be wanting in test preparation programs, after-school and sports programs, computer and media classes and arts electives. They're also not the districts that will suffer the way that Oakland will as a result of Gov. Gray Davis' mid-year budget cuts.

Davis announced early this winter that the state budget was running a $12.5 billion deficit. Cuts would have to be made, he argued, and fellow Democratic leaders stood right behind him.

They pretended that they couldn't understand where the money went--or that the budget crisis was solely a result of September 11 and the collapse of the dot-com boom. But those of us who remember the well-orchestrated California "energy crisis" last year also remember that that the state surplus that was promised to California schools went instead to bailing out Pacific Gas & Electric and other energy companies.

As it stands now, we in Oakland face approximately $6 million in cuts. But I've taught middle school in Oakland for nearly three years, and each year has seen a new wave of cutbacks.

The first year I taught here, the superintendent mandated that all teachers teach a reading class, regardless of what our specialty was. First, this violated our union contract, by increasing the number of subjects that teachers have to prepare for. But the even more insidious aspect was that to implement the reading classes, all but a tiny fraction of electives were cut.

My school lost all our art and computer teachers and most of our music teachers, but the number of students remained the same. We teach almost an hour more per day now and have to prepare for more subjects. Students and teachers both lost out, but the district saved millions of dollars.

This year, the small stipend that we receive to supplement classroom materials was decimated and funding for field trips was dramatically reduced.

When I think of the next wave of cuts, I wonder where the money could possibly come from. Could our schools be more overcrowded? Could school staff be more poorly paid? Could we get new materials even less frequently? Could the cafeteria food be worse?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes--that is, if the superintendent has his way.

In our union, we've begun to mount a fight against these cuts. Among the activist teachers, we understand that we can't trust the Democrats in the statehouse. And we also realize that we can't necessarily count on our own official union leadership.

Statewide, the California Teachers' Association has endorsed Davis in his run for re-election--and is, in fact, defending the cuts. And locally, the union leadership often attacks and undermines activists.

All this has led us to form an unofficial rank-and-file group, with the vision of building real activist opposition to the ongoing attacks on teachers and students.

Building this fight from the ground up is the only way to protect both our contracts and students' programs--and win back what the district has been taking, year after year.

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"We need to put pressure on"

NEW YORK Gov. George Pataki is gunning for the City University of New York (CUNY) system. If Pataki has his way, one-third of CUNY students' Tuition Assistance Plan (TAP) will be held back until they graduate--translating into a hefty $2,000 tuition hike over four years.

This will drive more students out of a city college system that has already lost 50,000 students over the last two decades. Just in the last six years, the CUNY budget has decreased by $1.6 billion.

Since the beginning of the semester, student and faculty activists have been building a coalition to fight Pataki's cuts. BILL CRAIN is a psychology professor at City College of New York. He talked to CANDACE RIVAS about the struggle at CUNY at a March 22 protest.

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THE PROPOSED City University of New York budget cuts are outrageous. Pataki's state budget allows for $13.4 billion in tax cuts that go to corporations and wealthy people. So when they say there's no money for schools, that's false. If they didn't give out tax cuts to the rich, they would have plenty.

We need to protest and put pressure on [New York City Mayor Mike] Bloomberg--it's the only way to win.

Students are outraged. They're looking out for their own interests, but also for others. My coworkers--union members in the Professional Staff Congress--are outraged as well. We have a new contract, but with money that the city doesn't have. They're going to have to get it from somewhere, and they're going to take it from CUNY.

We're suffering, too. There's a chronic problem with layoffs of adjunct professors, classes are too big, morale is low, there's no money for chalk, and we can't take sabbaticals. Our job is more difficult because students have to work more to pay for school, can't study as much and are too tired to learn.

I believe my fellow teachers would support legislation to reverse the budget cuts, but I think they should also get involved.

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