Bill Boyarsky: State budget crisis calls for action

If there was ever a time for Jewish parents to fight for Los Angeles public schools, this is it.

Legislators can’t agree on Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to have a special election to extend taxes scheduled to expire this year. “If we don’t get these tax extensions, it’s a dire emergency,” said Steve Zimmer, the Los Angeles school board member who represents the Westside and the West San Fernando Valley. Layoff notices have already been sent to more than 7,000 Los Angeles Unified School District teachers. If the voters don’t approve the tax extensions, those notices will, for the most part, be translated into firings.

This would be a devastating blow to Jewish families who have been engaged for many months in a campaign to persuade parents to send their kids to public schools. They have hosted parental meetings in their homes, arranged for school visits and formed support groups, all in the interest of persuading skeptical mothers and fathers that their children can receive a high-quality education in Los Angeles public schools and that these schools are safe.

Now, with the budget crisis, parents impressed by faculty during school visits might one day learn those teachers have been fired. 

“Reinvesting in public schools, particularly on the Westside and the West Valley, is still a fragile choice, still a leap of faith,” Zimmer told me. “People are positive, but it is fragile. So when you add the [budget] uncertainty, it makes the situation more precarious.”

Some people aren’t sitting back and taking it. 

At the Westside’s Temple Isaiah, a center for the back-to-public school movement, Rabbi Dara Frimmer told me congregants are learning the complex politics of the Sacramento budget mess and what will happen if Gov. Brown’s proposed tax extensions are not approved.

At the same time, they are examining the Los Angeles school district budget. This is a great idea. Get some smart accountants, tough lawyers and sophisticated political activists to take that budget apart. When it is time to cut, we shouldn’t accept the word of the school board or administrators at face value.

Although she is concerned about the cuts, Rabbi Frimmer said, “this only intensifies our commitment to public education — not just Jewish middle-class parents but all parents.”

At Hamilton High School, students, inspired by the young people of Egypt and Tunisia, used Facebook and e-mail to create a protest network after hearing of the layoff notices, which would hit their school hard. Among the many targeted cuts that would affect the school, major district-wide cuts are focusing on music programs, and Hamilton’s renowned Music Academy falls into that category. Students began work on a Friday and by Monday had 600 students at a rally and had persuaded — with about 100 e-mails — Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez to visit the campus. He wrote a terrific, supportive column. Continuing to work through the week, they organized a bigger rally outside the school on South Robertson Boulevard last Friday morning.

This is another great idea. The L. A. school district is traditionally afraid of student activism, and administrators, fearful of getting in trouble, tend to put it down, but, as others have found, it’s hard to put down a social network.

Still, political organizing hasn’t been easy, as this Hamilton dad wrote me:

“Several kids, including our son, were designated to speak to the school board on Tuesday. They were told to be there at 9 a.m. to ‘sign in.’ They were there by 8:20, signed in and were told to return at noon for the 1 p.m. meeting. They did as they were told. Sometime after they got back, they were told that they hadn’t filled out the necessary forms — forms that no one had mentioned to them before. As a result, they wouldn’t be allowed to speak. They missed a day of school, didn’t get to speak, but … they learned a lesson (although I’m not quite sure what it is) about dealing with the district bureaucracy.”

If the kids have the guts for a worthy fight, the adult Jewish community should, too.

Sure, it’s easy to ignore Sacramento. The budget crisis is confusing, ugly and messy. It’s more fun to rub shoulders with the glitterati at a presidential fundraiser or hear some well-known journalist or book author at another Westside political or cultural event for donors. No doubt about it, it’s more interesting to talk about Israel, Egypt or maybe even the Afghanistan war than to immerse yourselves in the tortuous details of the Sacramento legislative mill.

But we all have to turn our attention to Sacramento with e-mails, faxes and phone calls. If these lawmakers, terrified of losing, get enough static from constituents, they’ll listen. Republicans should tell those stubborn GOP legislators to drop their opposition to letting the people vote on taxes. Democrats can tell liberal legislators to ignore large contributions from public employee unions who are against the governor’s plan. They don’t understand, as Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton wrote, that Brown “is just the type to turn on everyone if negotiations blow up. He’d probably propose an all-cuts budget that would cripple schools, eliminate many thousands of teacher jobs …”

Skelton knows Brown well. So do I. And it’s clear that time is running out for our public schools. As Jews, who value education more than most, it’s our obligation to take the lead in saving them. 

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and LA Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

Vote Yes on 57, 58: They Will Ease Crisis

It certainly is an unusual situation, but we Republicans are encouraging you to vote to increase the debt of the state of California, and we are doing it with a straight face.

As you know, Proposition 57 is asking Californians to commit to a bond issue of $15 billion. This commitment will allow our state budget to be stabilized, so that we can begin the process of moving forward.

If you study the state budgets over the last few years as I have, you would see that we have had a deficit at the end of each year that keeps getting larger each and every year. Even when revenues were perceived to be at a peak, we were outspending those revenues. The state budget began each year in the hole that just got deeper as the months went by.

Now we have a twofold problem. We must deal with the backlog created from prior years and try to balance this year’s budget, where expenses still are outstripping revenues. Proposition 57 will allow us to focus on eliminating the current budget imbalance without the draconian past debt facing us.

As it is, we will face serious cuts in our state budget. The growth in expenditures will have to be eliminated and actual cuts in important programs will have to be made.

As much as some of us would like to effect the cuts now that are necessary to erase this debt, we have come to the conclusion that it would significantly harm our state’s economy. This would stifle the immediate economic growth we need to reach budget equilibrium.

This new debt is not going away. That is understood. We are going to have to pay it back over the next decade. It will be in a fashion that will allow our legislators to craft a budget that will not start wallowed in debt before the opening discussions begin. By our good fortune, this debt will be financed at today’s very low interest rates.

The question then becomes how do we prevent this disastrous situation from re-occurring. We must pass the companion proposition — No. 58. It specifically makes it illegal to create any future bonds to finance a budget deficit again. It requires the Legislature to balance the budget.

Proposition 58, in addition to requiring a balanced budget each year, establishes that there must be a budget reserve in case projected revenues fall short. This is an important part of the measure.

A year in advance, some very smart people sit down and project what the revenues are going to be for the next 12 months for the world’s sixth largest economy. As smart as they are, it is a Herculean task, where it is easy to be off a billion dollars or more. This reserve will recognize that projections are only projections, and we should provide a cushion for dealing with the inevitable changes.

These new budget requirements can only be deviated from when there is a fiscal emergency upon which both the governor and Legislature agree. Some would say that a balanced budget should be locked in stone.

Those feelings are certainly justified after the dismal performance of the last few years. Once we divorce ourselves from those feelings and look at the budgeting process on a long-term basis, it becomes easier to see that this is a necessary clause that allows our elected officials to act responsibly, when a true disaster happens. If, God forbid, another earthquake occurs matching the damage caused by the Northridge quake, we would all want our leaders in Sacramento to do what is necessary to return our lives to normal.

These are the reasons why a broad spectrum of the political and financial universe is supporting both Proposition 57 and 58. It is a reasoned plan of action.

There may be alternative plans that seem good, but this one is worked out and ready to go. Let’s give it a chance and make judgment about its success after we see the full effects.

There are many important votes to cast on March 2, but none is more important for the future stability of our state than to vote yes on Proposition 57 and 58.

Bruce L. Bialosky is the Southern California chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

U.S. Spending Ignores Domestic Deficits

Write the word "fiscal" and know that a hefty proportion of your readers will find something else to read. So, let’s talk about money instead.

Specifically, about the money the states don’t have.

The only thing you need to know by way of background is that almost all states are required, by their own laws, to balance their budgets. They cannot — as the federal government can — spend more money than they have. So when they find that their expenses are greater than their revenues, they must either cut their expenses or raise their revenues or do both.

When the states enacted their 2003 budgets, they had to deal with an estimated shortfall of $50 billion. That estimate turned out to have been about $25 billion light, which means that the states must now find another $25 billion.

And then comes 2004, with an additional $75 billion in new cuts or new revenues required. So, over a two-year period, there is a total of $150 billion in gaps that by law must be closed.

Plainly, most Americans have no way to process such numbers. Here’s one way to think of them: Aggregate state spending runs about $500 billion a year.

So we’re looking at a shortfall of some 30 percent. And you don’t find the money to cover that kind of shortfall without cutting — slashing, really — core programs and/or raising taxes. Not unless the federal government is prepared to come to your aid in a massive way — which this federal government is most assuredly not.

As it is, the federal government has itself moved from very substantial surpluses to a two-year deficit of $732 billion. On April 24, President Bush said, "This nation has got a deficit because we have been through a war."

But when you add up all the costs of the war — including homeland security, Sept. 11 recovery, Afghanistan and Iraq so far, the total is only $160 billion — about 20 percent of the deficit. Tax cuts for the two years come to $510 billion, or nearly 70 percent of the total. But the president’s deceptions are a matter for another time.

For 2004, the president has asked for $399.1 billion for the military — 51 percent of what’s called "discretionary spending," as compared to $49 billion for health and $29 billion for international affairs, more than five times the aggregate state deficit for the year.

What have our military expenditures to do with the state of the states? After all, we are a long way from the guns vs. butter arguments, when we used to show how many new schools or hospitals could be built for the cost of one new aircraft carrier. Approve the recent war or condemn it, it was as swift as it was and caused as few (relatively) casualties as it did in significant part because of that same aircraft carrier, the precision munitions and so forth.

Like it or not, we are the world’s only superpower, and there really are some people out there who seek to do us harm, and there really are some other people out there who need our help if they are to live in anything approximating dignity.

Few people would argue that all domestic priorities ought take precedence over any military expenditures. So the question is: How much is too much? Which is to say, at the outer "edges" of our military budget –say, the last $100 million or $200 million — are we confident that what we are buying is sufficiently important to warrant cutting back on Medicare, education or on any of the other items that comprise the core of our commitment to our citizens?

For example, we have nine supercarrier battle groups, with a 10th under construction. No other nation has even one. We have more advanced fighters and bombers than all other nations combined, and we have two new stealth aircraft types awaiting production. No other nation has any.

One of those new planes is the F-22, designed during the Cold War to counter new Soviet planes that have in fact never been built. The F-22s cost $204 million each, and the cost of the total program is a shade under $70 billion.

The problem here is obvious: Very, very few of us are competent to say that the F-22 is a luxury we cannot afford. When we do, we sound naive or unpatriotic; fearing ineffectuality, we remain silent or grumble privately. But the Pentagon has a virtually endless supply of "experts," and the geographically decentralized nature of defense contracting today ensures widespread congressional support for major military procurement programs.

Many years ago, I developed a definition of personal affluence: Affluence, I decided, was when you could go ahead with your summer vacation plans even after learning that one of your children needed orthodontia.

I still regard that as a reasonable definition and fear greatly that in the current temper and with our current leadership, we first make our travel plans and only then, if there is money left over, turn our attention to our dental needs — and to food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless and health care for all. And there is no money left over. None. As the president well knows.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope (Jewish Lights, Woodstock, Vt, 2001).

Budget Worries

Gov. Gray Davis’ proposed state budget for 2002-2003 has local Jewish organizations worried.

With the state’s approximately $12 billion deficit (in a proposed $98 billion budget) covered by program cuts, along with loans and spending deferrals, local agencies such as Jewish Family Service (JFS) and Jewish Vocational Service may face a significant reduction in funding.

"Jewish community agencies get literally millions and millions and millions of dollars in funding from the government for provision of nonsectarian services," said Michael Hirschfeld, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC). "Right now we have legislators saying, ‘You need to worry.’"

The programs most at risk are those funded directly through the state’s General Fund, which comprises about 80 percent of the budget. Since General Fund allocations are not specifically directed toward programs but funneled through state agencies, they are politically easier to cut when budgets get tight.

While Paul Castro, Jewish Family Service CEO, expects most of his organization’s funding will be "at least held constant or only [suffer] a slight reduction," more than a quarter of JFS’ budget comes from the state.

Jessica Toledano, who monitors the state budget for JCRC as director of government relations, said, "Any organization that gets money from the state General Fund is on alert."

For example, JFS programs funded in part by the state include the family violence program, which assists victims of domestic violence, and the citizenship program, which helps immigrants through the difficult process of becoming a citizen. Senior citizen health care programs and the Linkages program, which connects those in need of mental health care with appropriate providers, are also endangered by the proposed budget cuts. In all, JFS receives $6 million of its $22 million budget from the state.

The programs most reliant on General Fund dollars are those serving the elderly. Other Jewish agency nonsectarian services, such as job training and meal programs, are generally either federal or state-mandated services, with allocations set aside in harder-to-cut special funding.

The governor’s budget is only the first step in a months-long process toward preparing the final state budget, so it is still too early to know exactly what services will have to be cut.

However, Jewish organizations are not waiting to see where the ax falls. Through the JCRC and statewide through the Jewish Political Action Committee in Sacramento, they are preparing their own set of priorities and budgeting necessities.

As Hirschfeld put it, "We’re engaged now in a consultative process with professional and lay leaders of Jewish agencies, deciding what politically is worth advocating for and what we cannot save."

Toledano is optimistic that programs that seem endangered now may yet be funded: "There are other pots to look in. In a few months, there may be money."

The state’s legislative analyst’s office, which released a report on Davis’ proposals last week, is more skeptical about the budget’s workability, noting, "While ‘on paper’ the plan appears to work, many of its assumptions are overly optimistic," which "raises the risk of substantial future budgetary imbalances emerging." The report goes on to note that, in addition to other shortfalls in the proposal, the governor’s budget assumes nearly $3 billion in spending reductions for this year, which have yet to be implemented.

Jewish organizations are considering teaming up for lobbying efforts with like-minded providers of nonsectarian services "to try to be a stronger force in Sacramento," Toledano told The Journal. JCRC works with the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California (JPAC), to secure funding in Sacramento. JPAC Chair Barbara Yaroslavsky wrote in the organization’s December newsletter, "Maintaining funding for our agencies will be very difficult in 2002."

For most concerned citizens, however, now is not the time to be worried, Hirschfeld says. Many political and economic factors are expected to come into play between now and July 1, when the final state budget must be passed by the Legislature.

Castro stressed that because the governor’s budget is far from final, people with concerns can influence the cuts made to service programs.

"Anybody with a relationship or contact with a legislator should write them," he urged. "Tell them not to balance the budget on the backs of these vulnerable populations.

"The important thing to keep in mind is that this process has just begun," he said. "This initial draft in January will look much different in July."