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Legislators endorse $6 billion in budget cuts

SACRAMENTO -- Although lawmakers continue to argue over how to resolve the state’s fiscal crisis, they already have endorsed $6 billion in spending cuts that provide a painful preview of what is likely to be in store for Californians.

The proposed cuts would mean that money for the state’s university systems would decrease. Transportation and schools would take a hit. Funds for regional centers that help treat developmental disabilities in babies and toddlers would decline. Cash to help the elderly, blind and disabled keep up with rising food costs would be slashed.

None of these cuts has been enacted. But the fact that they were included in the fiscal plan that Democrats passed last month -- and have been separately backed by Republicans -- ensures that they will be at the top of the list when lawmakers finally decide how to bridge a budget gap projected to exceed $40 billion within a year and a half.

“With 9.3% unemployment in our state, people are flowing into public benefit offices all over California,” said Michael Herald, legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, a Los Angeles-based legal services nonprofit. “This is when people need these programs, and yet our state seems to be headed in a direction of reducing them now.”

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The $11.2 billion that California would receive from Washington to help wipe out the deficit under a stimulus package expected to be pushed through the House this week would do little to offset these cuts. The federal funds, which would address only a quarter of the state’s overall problem, are more likely to be used elsewhere.

One of the provisions both parties have supported in the state Capitol would reduce the maximum monthly grant for low-income blind and disabled Californians. Individual grants would drop from $907 to $870, while couples would see their monthly checks drop from $1,579 to $1,524, according to the state Department of Finance. Those grants were supposed to increase this year and again next year to account for inflation.

Ismael Maldonado, a 20-year old from Pacoima who has glaucoma and asthma, said he may have to skimp on medications if lawmakers cut his grant.

The last time he did that, he said, “I ended up in the hospital emergency room” -- an expense the state’s Medi-Cal program had to pick up.

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Both political parties have endorsed a plan to save $107 million through 3% reductions in payments to programs that help Californians live with cerebral palsy, autism, epilepsy and mental retardation. These programs, delivered through 21 regional centers, assisted 230,000 people last year, said Bob Baldo, executive director of the Assn. of Regional Center Agencies.

They provide diagnosis and early intervention for infants and toddlers with signs of development disabilities. These centers also provide rides for adults with developmental disabilities to day programs, provide them places to live and line up employment for them.

Baldo said the cuts are likely to mean that therapists working with children in schools will face larger caseloads, potentially reducing the time they can spend with each child. He said the cuts may be enough to force some providers of these services out of business.

A steep dip in school spending has been jointly endorsed. Some of the $3.9 billion in cuts to kindergarten-through-12th-grade education would be offset by declining enrollment in some districts, but there will also be many direct effects in the classroom.

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The area of school spending that will be hit hardest is funding for textbooks, which would be cut by $417 million. The loss of that money would make some schools unable to update their textbooks, and some districts unable to supply books to every student.

More than $277 million would be cut from a program to fund long overdue maintenance in school buildings, including some scheduled “emergency repairs.” Plans by many districts to fix leaky roofs, cracked sidewalks and broken heating systems would have to be put off another year.

Money for the neediest students would be cut, as would programs to further the professional development and training of teachers. Nearly $110 million set aside for districts to preserve art and music programs would also be on the chopping bock.

State funding to train faculty in how to best teach math and reading skills would also be reduced, as would subsidies available to districts that provide after-school child care. And a program initiated to get high-speed Internet access in every district is endangered. Some schools are still using dial-up technology.

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The education reductions erode “the foundation schools are built upon,” said Kevin Gordon, a lobbyist for hundreds of school districts.

Both parties have also endorsed cancellation of a 2.94% cost-of-living increase for the state’s welfare program. That would mean a family of three receiving the maximum monthly grant of $723 would not receive an extra $21 a month this year.

However, welfare recipients may ultimately get a reprieve because Congress is allotting more money to the states for this purpose, Herald said.

Legislative leaders from both parties declined to say which reductions are still being discussed in their negotiations with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, explaining that they did not want to jeopardize a deal. Democratic leaders have said they will not enact cuts until Republicans agree to some tax increases, and that standoff has led to the state’s current budget impasse.

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The state universities would be faced with tens of millions of dollars more in cuts after already scaling back operations in recent months. Earlier this month, the University of California announced it would eliminate 2,300 freshman slots for Californians in the coming budget year. The total number of freshmen admitted will be reduced from 37,600 to 35,300.

“The lack of sufficient state funding leaves us no choice,” UC President Mark G. Yudof said when the reduction was announced Jan. 14.

The decline in funds comes at a time when applications to the UC system from Californians are soaring. The system has cut back faculty development programs. University officials say the latest round of budget cuts could lead to further reductions in student services and an increase in the ratio of students per faculty member.

The Cal State system has also been cutting back at a time when tuition is scheduled to increase 10%. Student fees in that system have more than doubled since 2002, when they were $1,428. They are scheduled to increase to $3,354. Financial aid, meanwhile, is being scaled down.

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Schools in the system report canceling dozens of classes. And a hiring freeze for nonessential staff has been put in place systemwide.

“We are risking our long-term economic competitiveness as well as denying students the ability to attend college,” said Jean Ross, director of the California Budget Project, a nonprofit Sacramento research group that aims to help low- and middle-income people.

A college education, she said, “is the best guarantee of a job that brings with it sufficient income to support a family.”

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jordan.rau@latimes.com

evan.halper@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Members of both political parties have already agreed on $6 billion in cuts. Examples:

$3.9 billion

- Schools

$657 million

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- State workforce

$614 million

- Aged, blind and disabled

$312 million

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- Transit

Source: California Legislature


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