Earlier this month the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District voted to close my neighborhood elementary school. Even though it was consistently the best performing elementary school in the district, recent state budget cuts meant that MPUSD could no longer afford to keep it open – with a smaller campus and therefore a smaller enrollment, the district was spending more to keep the school open than they received in state aid payments. Kids will have to attend another school in another part of town that’s much less accessible (Monterey is basically split in two by the Presidio of Monterey). This came on top of dozens of teacher layoffs in the district, part of thousands of such layoffs across the state.
I use that story as a microcosm of the crisis that engulfed California in 2009. From domestic violence victims to people dependent on in-home supportive services to college students, to name just a few of the people impacted by budget cuts, the state of California in 2009 decided that destroying the safety net and the programs that created and sustained the prosperity this state had enjoyed over the last five or six decades.
Those cuts, in turn, have killed the California Dream. The dream is that anyone can come to California, enjoy its natural beauty, and reinvent/find/embrace themselves here, all enabled by the availability of basic economic security and prosperity. That’s really what it’s about, the notion that people can create, innovate, dream, and be themselves in this beautiful place, and do so without having to worry about how they’ll make ends meet, because the state has backed policies that will ensure such fundamental prosperity.
No longer. Now California’s government has decided to begin the slow process of abandoning its people to their fates. Well, unless you’re a corporation or you’re rich, in which case you still have power that you can wield to enable government to not only keep protecting your interests, but to enrich you even further, as seen by the corporate tax cuts made in the February 2009 budget deal.
There’s still a long way down, more public services that can and may well be slashed in 2010 and 2011 as the state’s economic crisis is prolonged.
And yet, amidst the pain of 2009, there were rays of hope. The same February budget deal saw taxes increased – and hardly anyone noticed the effect. The taxes, which began on April 1, didn’t worsen the recession. They haven’t created an unbearable burden on people. They haven’t produced a massive political backlash. The notion that Californians will never accept new taxes to preserve core services seems discredited. Not every tax will be supported or approved, but it’s a much less black and white matter than the pundits and politicians assume.
Another ray of hope came on May 19th, when Californians rejected an inherently right-wing set of budget proposals that avoided the core problems and would have made the current cuts permanent through a spending cap. Progressives refused to be swayed by legislative Democrats who used all kinds of scare tactics to try and get us to ratify that bad deal. Our rejection of that deal hasn’t cured the budget crisis, nor did we expect it to. But we do have more freedom to act on that crisis than we would have if we’d passed those propositions.
Progressives learned one of the key lessons of 2009: don’t support bad deals because you’re afraid of the alternative. Californians want progressive solutions to these problems. They want their neighborhood schools to remain open, with a full complement of teachers to maintain small class sizes. They want guaranteed and affordable health care for everyone, not just those who can afford it. They want government to take the lead in creating good, sustainable jobs, instead of sitting on the sidelines.
2010 is going to offer an opportunity to achieve some of that. The November 2010 ballot in particular could be full of initiatives designed to address various pieces of the budget crisis. Some of those solutions, such as marijuana legalization, will be very progressive. Others won’t be. And some of the biggest fixes, like a full restoration of majority rule, may not appear on the ballot at all.
Still, progressives are well positioned to play the deciding role in the key political battles of 2010. We have a big organizing and messaging task ahead of us, and we don’t have nearly the resources we need to match what the moderates and right-wingers have. But what we do have is powerful enough to help mobilize other progressives, whether activists or just voters, to step up and start the long process of rebuilding the California Dream in 2010.