Jean Ross, who gave the luncheon keynote address at the fourth annual poverty conference held June 15 at The MEND Center in Pacoima, said that both the nation and the state are grappling with what role government policies play in the economy and in filling in the gaps when the private market doesn’t work. “We’ve seen tax cuts sold at the federal level and in California based on promises of economic growth and [been] left with very real problems that now need to be tackled out of a smaller income base,” said Ross. “This really illustrates to me the extent to which we’ve seen some of the historic sea change in the way we look at the role of government.” Ross noted that public spending both nationally and in California is at about a 40-year low. The budget plan that Brown vetoed would have resulted in state spending at the lowest level since 1974, the year he was first elected governor.According to Ross, that fact is significant since 1974 was four years prior to the passage of Proposition 13, which shifted much of the responsibility for financing public education and some other services from the local level to Sacramento. Consequently, the state is tasked with providing more in a time when its financial resources are the lowest in nearly four decades.“We’ve been told,” said Ross, “that we have no choice but to tighten our belts [and] the belts that are being asked to really bear the brunt of those spending reductions are overwhelmingly those programs and services that do impact lower income Californians as well as vulnerable populations” such as the disabled and the frail elderly.“I’m probably somewhat more depressed than I’ve been in a very long time [because] of the total timidity of our elected leaders at really being willing to undertake a serious conversation about what we want from government, what role the nonprofit sector plays and what we are willing to pay for,” Ross continued. “Voters overwhelmingly think that they can have it all — all of the public services we had historically without having to pay more for them in a balanced budget.”This year’s budget, vetoed less than 24 hours after Democratic lawmakers submitted the majority-vote plan, was balanced with some solutions that Gov. Brown rejected as “gimmicks” similar to those used in past years. Brown said in a letter to lawmakers that the Democratic plan “continues big deficits for years to come and adds billions of dollars in new debt. It also contains legally questionable maneuvers, costly borrowing and unrealistic savings.” “Finally,” he wrote, “it is not financeable and therefore will not allow us to meet our obligations as they occur.” Brown’s proposed budget, which he introduced in January, would have brought the state’s finances to balance for five years based approximately half on spending cuts and half on revenue increases. But, it was also a budget, noted Ross, that cut deeply into programs for lower-income residents and included a sizable tax increase accomplished via tax extensions and the closure of some business tax loopholes.“Of the spending cuts, a very disproportionate share, half of the spending cuts, (signed into law in March and, mostly, on track to take place) come out of programs for low income Californians — out of Medi-Cal, CalWORKs, Healthy Families, and SSI/SSP providing cash assistance to the elderly and people with disabilities. “Another 29 percent,” she added, “affect vulnerable populations, including some very harsh reductions following several years of deep cuts to funding for programs for people with developmental disabilities and a sweep of funds out of local First 5 commissions serving kids from 0-5.” Ross also pointed out that cuts to higher education will make it harder for young people who don’t have the financial resources to go to private colleges and universities.“It’s a budget that means with all certainty that we will be back next year in a position that’s almost as bad as where we’re at this year. Most importantly to the school districts, the counties, the nonprofits and program administrators across the state, it means another year of uncertainty and looking around and saying, ‘We have nothing else left to give.’”To keep this situation from happening over and over again, Ross said important steps need to be taken.“First and foremost,” she emphasized, “we need to have that honest dialogue about what we want from government, about what realistically the nonprofit sector can and cannot do, what [programs] we are willing to pay for, and who ought to be asked to pay for those public services.”In addition, she said, every government policy and program needs to be carefully evaluated. “We need to look critically at what government does,” she asserted. “We need to look critically at [both] tax breaks and spending programs that don’t work well.“We need to look at not only what we want to do to prepare our state for competing in the global economy, but we need to look at what we want to do for the least among us and how we give them the opportunities that they need [and] also how we insure that people aren’t left behind.”She complimented the nonprofit agency leaders attending the poverty event for being advocates for the poor and disabled, but cautioned that they need to be careful in how they portray their ability to fill the state’s growing social services gap.“We often assume that we can do everything, and we can’t,” said Ross. She noted that filling the budget gap through charitable giving would require doubling the amount of charitable donations in California — including donations made to churches and international aid organizations — and focusing those dollars on the $9.6 billion deficit.“I’d like to thank you for what you do every day,” said Ross. “I have faith that working together we can change California [with] the ingenuity, the resourcefulness and the dedication of all of us who consider California our home and care about our state and our future enough to fight for it.”{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2011/0624/budget/{/gallery}