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State governments slash spending
Victims of the budget ax

January 10, 2003 | Page 5

STATE BUDGETS are bleeding red ink. The National Governors Association says that the country's 50 state governments today "face the most dire fiscal situation since World War II." And the "solution" that the states are looking to? Cuts on top of more cuts.

But these cuts can kill. Because the programs and services first up on the chopping block are the ones that help the most vulnerable people in society--children, the elderly and the poor--need the most.

NICOLE COLSON reports on the cruel impact of state government budget cuts.

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IMAGINE IF the state of California fired every person on its payroll--from social workers to park rangers to college professors to the Highway Patrol. The state government would still be $6 billion in the hole, according to Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson Jr.

California's $35 billion budget deficit is country's largest by far--but the crisis is hitting every state. "[C]uts of unprecedented depth in vital basic services--and especially in health insurance for working poor and near-poor families--lie ahead," Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, reported in a recent study.

California's Gov. Gray Davis is already at work with the ax. In December, Davis announced $10.2 billion in mid-fiscal year budget cuts, including $3.1 billion from public schools, $2 billion from health care programs and $1.7 billion from transportation. And there are deeper cuts to come.

As a result, California faces a potential health care disaster. Last year, more than 6 million Californians had no health insurance at all--and that number may rise by as much as 1 million more in the coming months because of growing job losses. At the same time, the public health care systems for low-income Californians--known as Medi-Cal--and for those without any health insurance are stretched to the breaking point.

Davis' proposed cuts would eliminate health care coverage for nearly 300,000 low-income parents with incomes between $9,160 and $15,000 for a family of three. Disgustingly, Davis has proposed requiring even more Medi-Cal paperwork for families with lower incomes, a change that the state's Medicaid agency projects will force another 200,000 parents--mainly immigrants and the working poor--off the rolls.

In Los Angeles County, one in four people--2.5 million residents--have no insurance. But that didn't stop the county from closing 11 health centers and four school-based health clinics last year--and cutting childhood immunizations programs and screenings for sexually transmitted diseases--to slash $31.3 million from the county budget. And under a new round of proposed cuts, the county will chop another $17 million from the health department that runs six hospitals and about 30 clinics.

People like Beryl Kendrick, a nurse at a county clinic in Compton, have no idea how they will keep the doors open. "It's going to make access to health care difficult," Kendrick said. "We're a county clinic; we serve people who have no insurance of any sort. During immunization time, this place is packed."

Juana Leon, a patient at the Compton Clinic and a mother of eight, doesn't know where she would turn. "It would be difficult," she told the North County Times. "I would have to work for the insurance, and I can't because of the problems of finding a babysitter."

Yet Compton Clinic is just one of five clinics that have been cut back because of a $365 million budget shortfall at the county health department.

California's schools "catastrophe"

"WE'RE IN a catastrophe," says Scott Plotkin. Plotkin is the executive director of the California School Boards Association, and he was talking to reporters about the state education system.

More than $3.1 billion was already sliced out of California public schools between 2001 and 2002 to help the state balance its budget. And now the state is back for another $3 billion in cuts.

"In order to save the amount of money being discussed, the state would have to shut down our schools for two full weeks, reduce per-pupil spending by $300 or lay off more than 35,000 teachers," Mary Bergan, president of the California Federation of Teachers, said in December.

In cities like Los Angeles, California public schools are already drastically under-funded. "I spend at least $500 of my own money every year just to make sure that my kids have the things they need: crayons, construction paper, decorations for my room," one second grade teacher told Socialist Worker.

"Last year, there was a little boy in my class that I used to bring extra food to school for--because his dad was raising him alone, and they were pretty poor. I'm sure that his best meal of the day was his school lunch. Now the state is cutting back on those programs--but how can you expect little kids to learn on an empty stomach?"

Meanwhile, young kids just starting school are being left out in the cold. Like 4-year-old Angel Lozano, who couldn't get into a Head Start program last year because the one in her neighborhood was full.

Angel is one of a growing number of low-income schoolchildren who, even though they are eligible for the program, aren't able to get in--because there's not enough money in the state and federal budget. Nationally, only 60 percent of the children who qualify for a seat in a Head Start classroom get one. In California, the number is just 46 percent.

Angel's father, Gabriel Lozano, says that Head Start prepared his older daughter Monica "beautifully" for the beginning of elementary school. "She had nutrition, snacks and everything," he told the Sacramento Bee. "It really helped her out a lot."

He's worried that he can't afford to pay for a program for Angel out of his own pocket--because he's unemployed. Along with his two daughters, Gabriel lives at his girlfriend's mother's house, scraping by on $319 in welfare payments and $176 in food stamps each month. "She's getting ready to start regular school next year," Lozano said, "so there's not going to be a Head Start for her."

Why won't they tax the wealthy?

CALIFORNIA'S FORMER State Superintendent for Public Instruction Delaine Eastin put her finger on the problem at a hearing before California lawmakers last month. "We're sending a bunch of our kids into peril in Afghanistan and other places, and we don't have the courage of heart and the spine to raise taxes to educate the children?" Eastin asked. "I'm ashamed to say my generation is that timid."

But it's not Eastin's whole generation that is to blame. Opinion polls show that three-quarters of people would rather pay more in taxes to finance a decent public education system.

The people who are "timid" are lawmakers. In California, they gave huge tax breaks to some of the richest and most powerful corporations in the world during the late 1990s and 2000--and then watched as the dot com bubble burst, and the state lost billions in tax revenue.

The solution to the state budget disaster is simple enough: Tax the rich--now. But no politician in the mainstream is likely to develop the "heart" or "spine" for that on their own.

That's why we need to organize and build support for struggles at the grassroots, wherever they take place--and show the politicians, from Washington to Sacramento, that we want a system that puts our needs first.

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