California: State Budget Crisis Proves Painful to Latinos

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sat Dec 20 14:10:06 UTC 2008

State Budget Crisis Proves Painful to Latinos

By Vince Vasquez

New number crunching from state finance officials has revealed that
California now faces a staggering $41.8 billion shortfall across this
year and next year's General Fund budget. Exactly how Sacramento
lawmakers will close this massive gap is unclear, but a key opinion
survey and new developments in the state capitol reveal that Latino
residents should play closer attention to how the budget crisis will
affect their families in the coming months.

According to results from a new statewide poll commissioned by the San
Diego Institute for Policy Research, only 42% of Latinos are either
"somewhat familiar" or "very familiar" with the budget deficit. This
number contrasts sharply with the familiarity of Caucasians (73%), and
Californians generally (64%). The reasons for this information gap are
likely to be demographic – the state Latino population is younger,
less likely to be registered to vote than the average Californian, and
less likely to be following the traditional news cycle. The preferred
news sources of Hispanics may also have an impact, as they don't
overlap entirely with most state residents. A 2004 survey from the Pew
Hispanic Center found that 24% of Latinos nationwide receive all their
news from Spanish-language media, and 44% prefer a mix of Spanish and
English language sources. Thus, the mainstream media drum beat on the
state budget crisis, which has raged for months, has reached
relatively few Latino households, which has profound consequences for
the community most at risk of extreme budget-balancing acts.

Earlier this week, the Republican Caucus proposed more than $15
billion in cuts to core government services, including $10.6 billion
to K-12 public schools and community colleges, more than half a
billion dollars in Medi-Cal cuts, and the elimination of $5 million in
state grants to teach school children about the life of Cesar Chavez.
Democrats have been critical of these cuts, saying they will hurt
working families and those in need, but their plan will also have
negative impacts on Californians. The Democrats have presented a
budget package with cuts that total less than half the size of
Republicans, which range from $4 billion in cuts for K-12 education,
$312 million for transportation projects, and $750 million for local
public safety programs. While Republican lawmakers adamantly refuse to
raise taxes to fix the budget mess, particularly during this historic
economic downturn, Democrat leaders are pushing a complex revenue plan
that will raise more than $9 billion in state revenues by increasing
the rates of income taxes and sales taxes, as well as creating a new
oil tax, which is likely to be shifted to consumers at the gasoline
pump. Both the Democrat and Republican plans make painful choices and
will impact the lives of everyday Californians, but Latinos have
strong opinions on their solutions.

Latinos have much at stake in budget deliberations – 47% of all
students in the K-12 system and approximately half of Medi-Cal program
recipients are of Hispanic background. Not surprisingly, opposition to
health care and education cuts is high. 90% of Latino respondents in
the opinion poll rejected cuts to education spending, 84% opposed
higher education cutbacks, and 84% stood firm against cuts in health
and human services. In fact, Latinos are more opposed to cuts in these
programs than Caucasians and Californians generally. Opinions on tax
hikes are however mixed. Latinos widely support raising taxes on
households that make more than $250,000 every year (60% support) and
taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products (86% support), but they
reject tax increases that impact broader society, such as sales tax
hikes (70% opposed) and car registration fees (71% opposed).

What's most frustrating for policy makers is that greater public
awareness to the budget crisis appears to not create demand for a
bipartisan consensus, as Democrats and Republicans who were surveyed
and are well informed on the budget mess did not support reaching
across the aisle for a solution. GOPers opposed solving the problem by
raising taxes, and Democrats opposed broad-based budget cuts,
reflecting the current partisan gridlock in Sacramento. Latino
residents stand more squarely in the Democratic column throughout this
crisis in terms of budget priorities, but the ¾% sales tax increase
and 2.5% income tax increase the Democrat lawmakers are proposing may
sour deeper support.

No matter how the state budget is balanced for Fiscal Years 2009 and
2010, lawmakers need to seek bipartisan structural reforms that will
prevent multi-billion dollar gaps in the future. Proposals for new
spending caps and tough budget transparency measures can help
significantly reduce overspending, and fair changes to pension
benefits for future state government employees must also be
considered. Budget cuts must be human and responsible, and reflect the
realities of the diverse needs of our California community. If
residents are to retain their quality of life, it's clear that
Democrat and Republican politicians must emerge from their partisan
trenches and build the consensus we ourselves lack.

Vince Vasquez is the senior policy analyst at the San Diego Institute
for Policy Research.
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