California budget cuts start to sting

The state's fiscal crisis affects everything from day-care centers to physicians' offices.

The California budget crisis is a constellation of numbers: $38 billion in deficit, nine days overdue, eight votes shy of a consensus. Gigi Uvidia, however, has one more number to add: 50 minutes.

That's her new morning commute now that state budget cuts have shut down her 2-1/2-year-old daughter's day-care center. What was once a matter of dropping Becky off at the Cypress College Children's Center before heading off to nursing classes has now become a nearly hour-long detour through the stoplights and snarls of Orange County traffic.

"It's going to be a great inconvenience, but there's not much of an option left," says Ms. Uvidia. "Parents are weighing the idea of not continuing their education because they don't have any other option."

The story of California's fiscal calamity is not merely told by bond ratings and budget estimates. For more than a year, its effects have pinballed among millions of residents, touching everything from the quality of medical care to the price of theater tickets in Los Angeles and lines at the DMV.

Yet today, as lawmakers dawdle over the largest deficit in state history, there is a growing sense here that the biggest cuts have not even begun. Some will certainly come this year. Others may be pushed off by a budget that papers over problems with borrowing and bookkeeping gimmickry.

The prospect of all, however, has created a deep unease - especially among the poorest and neediest Californians - as many still dealing with last year's cuts wonder if more are on the way.

"All the talk about it is leading to a lot of uncertainty," says Kim Rueben, a budget analyst at the Public Policy Institute of California in San Francisco. "No one knows what's going to be cut or not."

Not running on empty yet

For now, the government is in no risk of a shutdown, despite the fact that there is no budget in place. The state can survive on loans for more than a month. But the ongoing concern over the budget stalemate is only adding to longstanding fears over what eventually might be cut.

This spring, for example, 30,000 teachers received notices that they could be laid off, though the number was later reduced to 3,000. Community colleges like Cypress also have begun considering cuts to classes, teachers, and day care, even though they won't know how much to cut until the state budget passes.

"Regardless of when the budget passes, it will be retroactive back to July 1," says Marc Posner, spokesman for Cypress College. "So waiting for the state to take action wouldn't be that prudent."

But Cypress College's prudence - closing its Children's Center last week - has meant sacrifices for others.

Nursing student Uvidia had only recently gone back to college after taking 11 years off school to raise five daughters. Now, she must drive to Fullerton each morning before class to drop off Becky at her new day care. She couldn't afford anything closer, and the idea of just hiring a babysitter was out of the question.

"She learned so much at [the center]," says Uvidia, marveling that her 2-1/2-year-old can count to 20, recite the alphabet, and say the Pledge of Allegiance. "I didn't want her to lose what she already knew."

Cutbacks, big and small

In other cases, the effects of budget cuts are more subtle than locked doors or closed classrooms. While most counties so far have been able to avoid substantial cuts to their core programs, those who remain are often finding themselves stretched further and further.

Cuts in the foster-care system have forced Isaiah Rhodes to cancel weekend plans or pay for child care out of his own pocket. He and his wife had agreed to take in drug-addicted infants partly because the program promised 48 hours of free child care a month. Now, they only get 30 hours.

"It puts a real burden on you to be able to go anywhere," says Mr. Rhodes of Martinez, Calif., who says he had to pay for child care to attend a foster-care conference this weekend.

"Anyone you take the kids to has to be fingerprinted and licensed, not to mention that people act different when they learn these are foster kids."

For now, daily nuisances

Indeed, the common thread of the cuts to date has been inconvenience - and not just for the state's needy. The Los Angeles Stage Alliance's program to sell half-price theater tickets over the web had to be pared back when money from the state-funded California Arts Council shrank last year.

Likewise, the California Department of Motor Vehicles has cut staff. "If they cut any more people," quips Tim Jackson, who has been waiting in line for more than two hours at the Oakland office, "I'll be waiting here for four hours."

The note of frustration is obvious - and endemic. For many, the concerns go beyond merely patching this year's budget. Rather, they point toward a more permanent solution to California's revenue roller coaster, which relies heavily on volatile income taxes rather than more-stable property taxes.

Vacancy signs

It means that Robert Dimand can't recruit capable public physicians to California - and can't keep the ones that are here from leaving.

"People with mobility just won't come here," says Dr. Dimand of the Children's Hospital in Fresno. "They'll say that you might have made it through the last year, but will you make it through the next year?"

With vacancies going unfilled, waiting lists for appointments routinely reach six months. "It's got to affect the quality of care," Dimand says.

Somehow, others add, California must find a way to escape its amplified cycles of boom and bust. Says Mr. Posner of Cypress College: "If we don't act now, we're going to be in an even deeper hole."

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