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Assembly Member Carter Sees Teachable Moment In Budget Mess

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Inland lawmaker ponders the ‘blue pencil’ and why the process doesn’t always work the way you learned in civics class

By Chris Levister –

Imagine the awe last week when the governor and the legislative leaders from the Assembly and Senate watched as the state’s budget staggered over the finish line 100 days late with social programs relatively unscaved as promised.

Now image the shock eight hours later when lawmakers learned Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, (blue-penciled) vetoed nearly $1 billion for welfare, child care, special education and other programs before adding his signature.

“We were stunned.” That’s Assembly Member Wilmer Amina Carter (District 62) chair of the Assembly subcommittee on higher education. Last week she found herself trying to explain why with the stroke of his blue pencil the governor cut $5 million from funds to build a public medical school at UC Riverside.

“It was such a shock. There was never any indication that he would cut $5 million from the $15 million agreed upon after the bill made it out of all of those late night conference committees and negotiations.”

Carter said lawmakers negotiated what they thought to be a fair resolution of the budget with the governor.

“We were very clear. We wanted to protect education as much as possible and we insisted on protecting the safety net, the services for those most in need, the millions of Californians who are trying to get back on their feet,” said Carter.

The governor slashed 23 line items from the $87.5-billion general fund budget, including $256 million from a program for school-age children of families moving off welfare, $133 million from mental health services for special education students and nearly $60 million from AIDS treatment and prevention programs.

People are frustrated and angry.

Rightfully so said Carter, but she insists navigating the legislative process in these uncertain times is not pretty. “It requires patience, perspective, the ability to listen and a focused commitment to do what is right for all of the people not just a small subset.”

“People who are unfamiliar with how you come up with a budget feel that we were just sitting around doing nothing. Most of those items the governor vetoed were on the chopping block.

To save funding for mental health, child care and CalWorks took a huge amount of work,” said Carter. She says lawmakers worked around the clock poring over reams of complex data related to the economy, jobs, housing, healthcare, prison spending, and tax revenue all the while fighting to preserve the state’s disappearing social service safety net.

She said the heavy reliance on assumed federal money drew considerable criticism. At the same time, several revenue streams are drying up.

The federal stimulus program is about to end and temporary tax and fee increases approved last year will expire in the coming year. That will mean less revenue to cover K-12 education and health care spending commitments.

Several lawmakers described the new spending plan as so tenuous that the next governor is expected to face a multibillion dollar deficit from the moment he or she steps into office next year.

Choosing, instead to view the cup half full rather than half empty Carter sees the long and messy budget process as a teachable moment.

“Growing up in Mississippi I was taught to be hopeful in the face of crisis in that it’s always darkest just before dawn. We have to come to terms with the reality that we can’t spend what we don’t have,” said Carter. “I’m a farmer, as a child when we had a good harvest everybody shared. When times were hard we all pulled together,” she said.

She said people have to learn to depend on each other a lot more. Local governments have to make tough choices. Impose policies that promote long term sustainability rather than looking to a place up north or in Washington to close a budget shortfall.

Carter said when people complain about cuts in state services, “I say ‘you’ are the state. I remind them that taxpayer dollars make those programs possible. It boils down to higher taxes, creating alternative revenue sources or doing more with less.”

“I’ve always had faith in my community. I know together we can get through these difficult times. I’m proud that we used this crisis as an opportunity to pass the rainy day fund and changes in the pension system. My top priority is to create jobs and move the economy forward for our families,” she said.

Carter says she plans to spend the next several weeks listening to and educating people in her district.

“I’m going to be out there promoting healthy lifestyles, community gardening, citizen-backed neighborhood revitalization projects, regional coalitions, and small business creation.”

“I want to see more volunteerism and citizen engagement in government. Give solutions when possible. Respect the expertise of others. Don't just be a critic, offer an answer. Show how your idea will address the problem.” Carter said with the 2010 budget process in the rear view mirror lawmakers are looking ahead to 2011 and beyond.

“The legislative process is always changing but there are constants. It doesn't always work the way you learned in civics class. There are some problems that only a change in statute can fix,” she said. “Many changes in the law happen because one concerned, committed, and patient citizen worked the system to make a positive change.”

“Everyone sees the world through the lens of his or her own experiences and biases. Legislators are no different. While your issue is your first priority, it may not be theirs. You have to show respect. You have to meet people where they are,” said Carter.

“Some people say we can’t go back to the old ways of doing things. I’m all for progress, but we can’t lose sight on the basic human values that guided our forefathers.”

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