California's top education official and top law enforcement officer spoke out Monday against budget cuts proposed for next year by Gov. Gray Davis, warning lawmakers they would have harmful effects on the quality of schools and public safety.
The remarks, made independently by the high-ranking Democrats at separate events, further complicate the job of the Legislature as it seeks to close a budget gap estimated to be as large as $35 billion over the next 16 months.
The prospects of the Davis plan for balancing the budget by the June deadline were already uncertain because of Republican opposition to its billions of dollars in tax increases.
But the resistance of Democrats, who control the Legislature, continues to mount out of concern that it would cut services too deeply.
In testimony before a legislative committee, state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell urged lawmakers to reject $963 million of the $2.7 billion in proposed cuts to schools, warning that they could lead the state into an "education recession."
"We simply cannot allow the hard times to erode the gains we have made," O'Connell said at a hearing before a Senate budget subcommittee on education finance. "The current cuts being considered for education are too deep."
O'Connell called on lawmakers to finance the programs that would otherwise be cut with new taxes. "I believe additional revenue must be found to protect the core integrity of our educational system," he said.
O'Connell warned that the governor's plan would "jeopardize the solvency of many school districts in California" as well as reduce the quality of instruction statewide, and would have a particularly bad effect on children with special needs.
O'Connell is joining state Treasurer Phil Angelides in calling on lawmakers to increase taxes instead of cutting education by the full $5.2 billion Davis has proposed through spring 2004.
Lawmakers have already cut education spending by $2.5 billion through program reductions, deferrals and fund shifts that were signed into law by Davis earlier this month.
Davis spokeswoman Hilary McLean questioned the wisdom of calling to raise taxes more than the $8.3 billion already proposed by the governor.
"We've still got one party in the Legislature that isn't in favor of any" new taxes, she said. "Rather than adding to the amount of revenue we need to shoot for, a more productive effort would be to support the revenue increases in the package the governor has already presented."
Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer warned at a news conference earlier in the day against cutting a much smaller program: the $3-million California witness protection program. Lockyer said the cut would hamper the prosecution of killers, possibly causing an increase in homicide.
But Davis administration officials took issue with Lockyer's contention that the governor is proposing to cut witness protection.
McLean said that program is financed by an independently managed victims compensation fund that is unrelated to the state's general budget. The fund recently went bankrupt after paying out more in claims to crime victims than it had in the bank, she said.
"This is not a cut in the governor's budget by any means," she said. "This program is funded by fees and fines paid by people who commit crimes."
But officials in the attorney general's office said they hold Davis responsible because his administration oversees the program.
"Often the only thing preventing a killer from getting away with murder is the testimony of a key witness," Lockyer said. "This program protects witnesses."
Appearing at the news conference but shielded with a sheet that protected her identity was the mother of a witness who was beaten after testimony at a preliminary hearing. The witness protection program moved her family into housing in another part of the state, where the suspects could not find and intimidate them.
"Her beating was a warning," the mother of the victim said. "They threatened to kill us."