Fire parcel fee, redevelopment cuts, tuition hikes, freeze on teacher lay-offs, and "crippling" cuts in border crimes enforcement among the budget impacts on our region
By Miriam Raftery
June 30, 2011 (Sacramento) –Governor Jerry Brown and Democrats in the state Legislature have approved a majority-vote budget without a single Republican vote. The move ends a months-long impasse in which Republicans held out for an all-cuts budget, while Democrats sought revenue increases to prevent slashing programs ranging from healthcare to law enforcement. The budget includes $7.9 billion in cuts which aim to reduce the state’s $26 billion deficit to $5 billion.
The Governor has already signed several of the key budget bills, which include cuts to many programs. The budget relies on a more optimistic revenue projection than prior budget proposals, based on increased revenues during the early months of this year. But if those revenues fail to materialize, there are triggers to spur even deeper spending cuts later in the year.
The budget includes new revenue sources. One is a $12 per year increase in vehicle registration fees.
Another is a $150 per year fire parcel fee for homeowners living in fire-prone rural areas under Cal-Fire jurisdiction—which includes much of San Diego’s East County. The fire parcel fee is expected to raise $50 million for firefighting services; costs of fighting fires hit an all time-high in 2007 and surpassed that in 2008 due to increasingly severe wildfires. Just in time for fire season, Cal-Fire got orders to cut manpower from four men to three per engine, a move that makes firefighters job more dangerous for operations such as hose-lays, one firefighter told ECM's editor.
But the fire parcel fee has rankled many backcountry residents, who contend it’s unfair to single out one segment of the population and note that homeowners in high-fire risk areas are already paying high rates for fire insurance.
“Once again, members of California’s desperate legislature are unfairly targeting rural property owners to make up for the State’s inability to balance its budget and adequately fund fire protection,” Supervisor Dianne Jacob said, accusing lawmakers of “fleecing” rural taxpayers. “The bill amounts to double taxation because these property owners are already paying for fire protection though their property taxes. Many residents are paying additional taxes to their local fire districts. Some are victims of the 2003 and 2007 fires so these folks would be getting burned twice,” she said, adding that the bill does not assure any additional services.
Another controversial provision would require online retailers such as Amazon to collect state sales tax on transactions to California consumers, a move intended to boost state revenues, though consumers will have to pay around 8% more for online transactions. Amazon has retaliated by saying it will cancel agreements with its affiliates in California. Critics have called the provision a job killer.
Republicans have soundly rejected other revenue increase options ranging from a wellhead tax on oil to closing corporate loopholes to taxing junk food items.
The budget also put redevelopment agencies on the chopping block—but a likely legal challenge leaves redevelopment agencies in limbo. Redevelopment is designed to help cities eliminate blight and revitalize struggling, economically depressed areas by reinvesting local property tax revenues that would otherwise be shared with counties, cities and schools.
The Legislature approves two measures; the first eliminates some 400 redevelopment agencies statewide, starting as early as October 1st. The second measure would allow agencies to remain—but only if they pay a hefty share of the $1.7 billion that the state would save by eliminating the agencies.
"We believe the bills are unconstitutional," said John Shirey, executive director of the California Redevelopment Association. He said the association will sue the state if Brown signs the bills, on the grounds that they "are violating those sections of the constitution put there last November in Prop. 22. It may not be our only point in our action, but voters said loudly, by 62 percent of the vote, they don't want state government taking local funds,” the Sacramento Bee reported today.
Seventy state state parks are doomed to permanent closure, including Palomar State Park and the historic San Pasqual Battlefield State Park in San Diego County.
Among the biggest winners in the new budget are elementary, middle and high school teachers. Statewide, about 30,000 K-12 teachers have been laid off since the recession began—and with it, the state’s budget woes. Another 20,850 received pink slips warning of layoffs earlier this year, according to the California Teachers’ Association. But with teacher layoffs have come increased class sizes and concerns about the quality of children’s education.
The budget deal prohibits K-12 districts from laying off teachers for the upcoming fiscal year (unless triggers are met due to reduced state revenues). Districts are instructed to ignore the prospect of triggers, however, for the moment.
“This provides stability for students and teachers,” said Dean E. Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association, the Sacramento Bee reported. But some school districts oppose the move, concerned over how to handle mid-year cuts if needed.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris has expressed serious concerns about "Crippling" funding cuts to her department.
“These budget cuts handcuff the state Department of Justice’s ability to fight gang violence and disrupt the flow of drugs, guns and human beings across our border,” Harris, a Democrat, said in a statement issued to media. “The cuts will likely eliminate 55 state-led task forces that coordinate the response to our growing gang problem. The Bureau of Investigation and Intelligence and Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement will also likely be eliminated, as will the investigative capacities of the newly-formed Mortgage Fraud Strike Force. All told, several hundred agents, investigators, and other law enforcement positions will be lost.”
Cases handled by DOJ-led tasks forced slated for elimination include three suspects from San Diego arrested on a murder-for-hire contract targeting an entire family, Harris said.
San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, a Republican, is among law enforcement leaders quoted by Harris in a joint press release blasting budget cuts to the California Department of Justice, Division of Law Enforcement.
“My office investigates and prosecutes crime along California’s border on a daily basis,” she stated. “It is through collaboration with the Division of Law Enforcement that we are able to see results from our efforts to stem the tide of violent crime crossing into California. The work of the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement and the Bureau of Intelligence and Investigations is a key piece to a statewide strategy to prevent gang crime. I understand the challenges in balancing the state’s budget, but urge you to keep in mind that most local law enforcement agencies are taking severe staffing reductions, especially the smaller agencies, and we will need the assistance of DLE more than ever.”
DOJ budget cuts also concern Gregory D. Totten, president of the California District Attorneys Association, who told the Sacramento Bee it could jeopardize the ability of law enforcement to protect those in the witness protection program and also negatively impact forensic testing for blood alcohol content and drugs – tests he called “crucial to all types of prosecutions.”
The budget also whacks funds from Medi-Cal including caps on doctor visits, hikes premiums and co-pays for low-income families, and could force seniors using adult day health centers to go into nursing homes instead. “We’ve gone well past smart and strategic cuts to ones that are just plain stupid,” Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, said, according to the Sacramento Bee.
Biggest losers in the budget process are once again college students at University of California and California State University Schools, where tuitions have skyrocketed year after year as legislators slash funds for the state higher education systems. UC had already raised tuitions for fall by 8% and CSU 10%--before the latest cuts; trustees warn that even steeper hikes will be now be imposed for the fall semester.
State Senator Marty Block, a Democrat whose district includes portions of East County, called the deep cuts to state colleges and universities “more than unsettling” but said Democrats were forced to make tough decisions to balance the budget before the new fiscal year (as required by state law) because “Assembly and Senate Republicans refused to let the people vote on revenue extensions.” (Democrats had sought to put a measure on the ballot to allow voters to decide on whether to extend certain taxes that were expiring, but Republicans blocked that effort.)
But Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway said her party “honored our commitment to taxpayers by preventing the passage of painful tax increases that would have hurt families and employers alike.” The GOP has contended that the budget could be balanced without revenue increases, such as reducing pensions for state workers, eliminating duplicative programs, and cutting waste, fraud and abuse.
Governor Jerry Brown defended Democrats’ actions in passing a budget by a simple majority vote, saying the majority made “tough choices and delivered an honest, balanced and on-time budget that contains painful cuts and brings government closer to the people through an historic realignment. Putting our state on a sound and sustainable fiscal footing still requries much work, but we have now taken a huge step forward.”