Cutting deeper into the same battered programs

With a budget bleeding red, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger soberly announced that the state would have to slice painfully into services for children and the elderly, transportation and healthcare, social services and criminal justice. Democratic lawmakers responded with alarm, saying that gouging state programs so deeply would endanger the lives of vulnerable residents.

That was last week. And last summer. And the winter before.

In California, cutting programs and services has become a semiannual ritual, a darkening of the dream in a state that once prided itself on its generosity. In dealing with $60 billion in deficits in little more than a year, state officials already have carved deeply into every corner of the government and are bracing for the need to whack more to close another $19.9-billion hole.

“We’ve seen some pretty awful impacts already,” said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access, a Sacramento-based nonprofit. “The cuts today don’t just hit millions of Californians, they unravel the healthcare system that we all rely on.”


The governor is threatening to reduce or eliminate funding for the CalWorks program for welfare recipients; the In-home Supportive Services program intended to keep the elderly and disabled out of nursing homes; Healthy Families, which provides healthcare to children; prisoner rehabilitation; Medi-Cal, the health program for the poor; and Cal Grant awards for college students, among other cuts.

Even in declaring that he wanted to protect public education, Schwarzenegger on Friday proposed spending $2.4 billion less than he and lawmakers agreed to last July. As in the past, he described his own proposals as “draconian.”

“Under normal circumstances, we would not make those cuts,” he said.

Democratic lawmakers, while dismissing the governor’s plan, acknowledged that some programs might have to be reduced again. But they said there was little room to maneuver.

“Eliminate CalWorks, you’re increasing homelessness,” said Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). “You eliminate In-home Supportive Services, probably people won’t live as long, but you’re also going to increase state costs for nursing homes.”

According to a report by Health Access, nearly 3 million low-income adults have lost benefits such as dental care, vision care, speech therapy and psychological services in the last six months; about 93,000 children were temporarily uninsured until funds cut from Healthy Families were restored; 300,000 low-income women no longer get breast cancer screenings; thousands of HIV and AIDS patients have lost services and medication; and at least five community health clinics have been shut down.

Louise McCarthy, spokeswoman for the Community Clinic Assn. of Los Angeles County, whose members run 132 clinics, estimated that under the proposed budget, local clinics would see an additional $2.4 million in Medi-Cal reimbursements delayed. Meanwhile, she said, the last census showed 2 million uninsured county residents.

“That number’s going to jump, and those folks are still going to try to seek services and the clinics are going to try to provide them,” she said. “We’re definitely in a tougher situation now than ever.”

Part of the burden will probably shift to county clinics, where wait times for preventive and specialty care will increase, said Lynn Kersey, executive director of L.A.-based Maternal and Child Heath Access.

The governor’s budget would also eliminate adult day-care services, effectively closing 328 facilities that serve about 37,000 disabled and elderly people, according to Lydia Missaelides, executive director of the Sacramento-based California Assn. for Adult Day Services. Of those, 180 are in L.A. County, with 4,278 staffers serving about 17,060 people, she said.

The governor proposed cutting $1 billion more from public transit, from which the state has already taken billions of dollars. Transit union leaders say hundreds of workers have been laid off statewide and hundreds more jobs are at risk.

The Orange County Transportation Authority, which faces a $33-million operating deficit, has had to cut about 250,000 service hours for lack of state funding, according to its chairman, Peter Buffa.

“We’ve reduced our whole bus system by somewhere between 20% and 25%,” he said. “This is heartbreaking for us.” If more funds are taken away, Buffa said, his agency will probably move money from capital projects to avoid further service reductions.

For the second year in a row, the governor is also proposing cuts to the Cal Grant program, which provides financial aid for about 200,000 low-income college students. The Legislature restored funding last time, but the students were affected by tuition hikes anyway.

Aside from possibly freezing all Cal Grants, the new budget would cut $45.5 million from four-year grants to some 22,500 college students who are re-entering education after going to work following high school. Even now, there are seven applicants for each recipient of a re-entry grant.

“It would make it more difficult to attend college full time because the cost of higher education has increased significantly in the last few years,” said Diana Fuentes-Michel, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, which administers the grants.

Billions of dollars have been cut from elementary, middle and high schools, diminishing programs and increasing class sizes across the state, local officials say. On Thursday, during a news conference at Bethune Middle School in Los Angeles, Schwarzenegger celebrated a legislative package intended to help students leave poor-performing schools.

Officials cited Bethune as a campus rising to the challenge of serving low-income minority students. But it also exemplifies the damage wreaked by the ongoing budget shortfalls, its leaders say. The school lost 36 of 96 classroom teachers since last year, Principal Carlos Gonzalez said. That is three times the normal attrition rate.

With plunging morale, the school in the Florence neighborhood of South Los Angeles fell short of its state-established academic improvement target.

After the event, Los Angeles schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines glanced around the library, where officials had gathered. He wondered whether he could keep it operating full time. Federal stimulus money had helped keep the library open this year, even as the district cut elementary school libraries to three hours a day.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District and elsewhere, student-teacher ratios in kindergarten through third-grade classes rose from 20-to-1 to 24-to-1. Next year, they are likely to hit 29-to-1 in many districts.

Cortines said he was particularly dismayed that more than 40 students sit in high school classes required for admission to University of California and Cal State schools -- double the ratio under previous state funding.

“I just believe we’re setting some kids up for failure,” he said.

Times staff writers Patrick McGreevy in Sacramento and Howard Blume, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Ari B. Bloomekatz in Los Angeles contributed to this report.