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Pain of budget plan is widely spread

Times Staff Writers

The state’s ability to protect children, renters, workers and the elderly as well as California’s wildlife and its land would be impeded under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposals for closing a $14.5-billion deficit, state agency reports show.

The proposed budget reductions, which Schwarzenegger submitted this week to the Legislature, would erode public protection programs across state government, according to hundreds of pages of assessments that agencies submitted along with the budget this week.

Schwarzenegger decided to spread the pain across all areas of government, forcing most agencies to prepare to cut a tenth of their spending. Advocates for many of those areas said relatively small reductions would have a significant effect on the state’s ability to enforce its laws and protect its citizens.

This comprehensive approach would reduce state inspections of child-care centers and elderly residential facilities. Inspectors currently try to visit every center once every five years unless there is a history of problems. To save $4.7 million between now and mid-2009, the Community Care Licensing Division plans to reduce that frequency to once every seven years.

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“We talk about children’s health and safety being our priority, so it’s difficult to justify this,” said Holly Mitchell, the head of Crystal Stairs, a child care advocacy group in South Los Angeles.

She noted that a national report released last year ranked California 38th among the states for the thoroughness of its child center oversight efforts.

A $2.6-million cut to the Department of Fish and Game would result in the elimination of 38 game warden positions, according to the agency’s budget documents.

Jake Bushey, a retired warden and spokesman for the California Fish and Game Wardens Assn., said wardens are already stretched so thin that they have time to investigate only one out of every four tips they receive about poaching.

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“You can pass all the environmental protection laws you want, but someone has to be there to enforce them,” Bushey said. “Want to pollute? Want to destroy habitats? Want to poach commercially? Have at it. We can’t stop you.”

The cuts could hamper state government’s ability to investigate complaints of housing and employment discrimination. The state Fair Employment and Housing Department -- the largest civil rights agency in the country -- said in its budget documents that the $1.9-million cut it would sustain “will result in a backlog of discrimination cases.”

The department estimated that some 740 cases would take so long to investigate that California would violate federal timeliness requirements, costing the state between $100,000 and half a million dollars in aid from Washington.

At the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, which enforces workplace health and safety laws, the governor’s proposal to eliminate one hearing office would reduce the number of complaints processed and heard by more than 1,000, according to its budget documents. The board already has a backlog of 3,000 cases.

The board warned that increasing the backlog could lead to the filing of a federal complaint against the state for “failure to process cases in a timely manner.”

The state Agricultural Labor Relations Board, which investigates and prosecutes violations of the rights of farmworkers, would be scaled back to just one part-time judge and a reduced number of field investigators and attorneys.

Those reductions would “severely hamper the ability of ALRB to process unfair labor practices in a timely manner,” the board said in its budget documents.

Complaints of unfair labor practices in California have increased by 25% in the last two years, leading to delays in investigating and prosecuting cases, according to the board.

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“The state is already having a hard time enforcing the laws,” said Vicki Adame, communications director for the United Farm Workers. “Some cases will just slip through the cracks.”

Administration officials acknowledged that those cuts would have unwanted effects, but said they tried to make them in the least painful ways. Schwarzenegger chose widespread cuts rather than increasing taxes or making reductions that would have hit some programs deeply and spared others.

“This makes it clear the situation we’re in,” said Daniel Zingale, a senior advisor to the governor. “The people of California believe they’re sending plenty of money to Sacramento to do the job well, and the governor’s budget is consistent with that.”

Some of the cuts could curtail California’s ability to enforce landmark laws crafted to protect nature and serve as a check on development. A nearly $8-million cut in the budgets of the Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention and the Department of Fish and Game would limit their ability to review timber harvest plans in the Sierra and elsewhere, and to enforce the California Environmental Quality Act, the agencies said.

Reductions at the state water board, meanwhile, would limit the state’s ability to monitor ocean pollution by the construction and other industries. The coastal commission, an agency charged with regulating development on California’s ecologically fragile coastline, would see its ability to review applications for everything from liquid natural gas pipelines to golf course community subdivisions diminished under $1.2 million in reductions.

“They do heroes’ work to try to provide a solid analysis for complex coastal issues and they have never been adequately funded,” said Chad Nelsen, environmental director of the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation. “This [cut] allows the pro-development forces to have increased influence in the decision-making process.”

In the midst of all the cuts, Schwarzenegger decided to increase funding in a few areas: $8.5 million to strengthen state enforcement of diesel pollution rules and $2.3 million to improve the state’s efforts to reduce the amount of dangerous pesticides.

But the increases were dwarfed by cutbacks -- including $9.5 million from the Department of Food Agriculture, which would lead to fewer livestock inspections and reduced efforts to stamp out fire ants, and $3.8 million from the Department of Toxic Substances. That could undermine its role in cleaning up dangerous spills on highways.

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The state’s public health apparatus would also contract. Schwarzenegger proposed cutting $3.5 million from programs intended to diagnose and treat chronic diseases, and $6.6 million from efforts to track communicable diseases and immunize people.

State officials said they do not know how severe the reductions’ impact would be. None said the cuts would help.

“We tried to avoid it,” said Mike Chrisman, California’s resources secretary, referring to the cuts to enforcement operations. “At the end of the day, we couldn’t. There were unfortunately no other options.”

jordan.rau@latimes.com

evan.halper@latimes.com


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