A conversation among three heavy hitters kicked off the series of programs Antioch University will present to alumni this year. California: Walking Back from the Brink featured news and views from California expert Jerry Roberts; Congressmember Lois Capps; and historian and former Los Angeles bureau chief for the Washington Post Lou Cannon.
Moderating the discussion was Susan Rose, former Santa Barbara County supervisor and a new Antioch University Santa Barbara trustee. She and Victoria Riskin, the university’s board president, welcomed alumni to the series of symposia. Except for Capps, the speakers in this first panel discussion are all Antioch trustees.
Rose introduced the distinguished panel. “Our focus is on the state of the state. California is faced with the worst economic and social crisis since the Great Depression. I’ve spent most of my professional life working in government, but in all those years I cannot remember any period as bad as this,” Rose said. “Decision makers will be faced with making profoundly difficult choices. Does Santa Barbara County shut down a health clinic or cancel in-home services for the disabled? What will happen to the mentally ill? Does the City of Santa Barbara close a fire station or a park? Does the Santa Barbara School District fire teachers, shorten the school year, and increase the class size?”
Lou Cannon introduced the issue of food stamps. An exponential rise in the use of food stamps has some 36 million Americans receiving them, nearly three million in California. But another three million Californians eligible to receive them do not. “California has the lowest participation in the food stamp program,” Cannon said. “In Santa Barbara County there were nearly 27,000 persons receiving food stamps, up some 6,000 from a year earlier. But the participation rate in our county is even worse than the state as a whole—nearly three times as many people are eligible.
“The principal reason that so many eligible Californians don’t receive food stamps is that unnecessary barriers have been erected to application,” Cannon continued. “One of these barriers is a legal requirement in California that food stamp applicants be fingerprinted. Some $2 billion is being left on the table each year in federal funds that would be available to the working poor in California. And it’s not just a matter of concern for them. It’s estimated that each dollar of food stamps has a multiplier effect of $1.84 in the economy. So if all the 70,000 or so people in Santa Barbara County who are eligible for food stamps actually received them, they’d be receiving $58 million more than they actually do and the effect on the county’s economy would be $108 million.”
Jerry Roberts reported, “California has serious, fundamental problems involving education, water, infrastructure, and more, but they all begin with the grim reality of its badly out-of-whack budget. The governor and Legislature are facing a $20 billion deficit.”
This arose, he stated, when “[s]tate government responded to Proposition 13 by tangling the relationship between state and local governments and shifting control of remaining property tax revenue to Sacramento, moving power and responsibility for health, welfare, and schools from city councils, boards of supervisors, and school boards to the Legislature.”
Roberts said that California’s “desperate situation has energized a number of efforts to push for reforms aimed at repairing our broken government, like Proposition 11, taking the power of legislators to draw their own districts—a conflict of interest for the ages—and giving it to an independent commission. In June, we’ll vote on Proposition 14, a constitutional amendment to create a series of open primaries. This would change the current partisan system so that a general election contest would be between the two highest vote getters in the primary, regardless of party. The November ballot may also include one or more initiatives to dump the two-thirds requirement for budget votes and perhaps for taxes as well.”
Lois Capps summarized the crisis: “One year ago the economy was on the brink of collapse and most economists thought we could be headed for another Depression. The stock market had dropped 50 percent, wiping out savings for millions of Americans. Credit was frozen.
“Now the economy is actually growing by 6 percent,” she stated. “We actually gained some jobs at the end of last year, the market has greatly recovered, and credit has loosened a little.”
Speaking about the Recovery Act, Capps reminded the audience that nearly a third of the cost of that bill went for tax cuts; another third to expanding unemployment benefits; and then to state government, which “saved jobs for thousands of teachers, public school workers, firefighters, and police officers,” with $700 million earmarked for public safety services in California. “This means our kids are still in school, our homes and businesses are protected, and those workers had money to spend in our local businesses.
“We’ve started dozens of transportation improvement projects, and begun rehabilitation and enhancement projects at all of our local airports and harbors up and down the Central and South Coasts,” Capps said. “The Recovery Act provided $40 million to expedite repair of the Santa Maria River levee system that protects the cities of Santa Maria and Guadalupe. We’re talking about public safety; we’re talking about protecting farming; we’re talking about creating and sustaining 450 jobs; and we’re talking about a $65 million boost to our local economy.”