Tag Archives: budget deficit

‘Medicare for All’ Would Solve California’s Budget Deficit

by Jennifer Epps

In Canada, the only way to see a doctor is to call one up and make an appointment. Or walk in to their office. In Britain, the only way you’ll get surgery is if you actually need it. And yet State Senator Mark Leno and 44 co-sponsors want to bring this kind of healthcare system to everyone in California! Imagine.

In fact, the California legislature twice approved such a system, in which private providers carry on as independently as always but the public pays their bills directly (rather than indirectly as it does now, through a patchwork quilt of emergency care, programs to bring healthcare to the poorest and the elderly, and subsidies for insurance premiums.) Both times Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill. But Senator Leno, a longtime campaigner for single-payer — a.k.a. “Medicare-for-All” — has brought the bill back again as SB 810. Last week, the bill fell just two votes shy of passage with a tally of 19-15 in favor. (It needs 21 to pass because it requires more than a simple majority.) Sen. Leno plans to push for another vote under Reconsideration, because several Democratic state senators abstained, but the deadline to win their support is today.

(Edit by Brian…More over the flip)

This single-payer bill is championed by Campaign for a Healthy California, a coalition which includes the California Nurses Association, Physicians for a National Health Program, California Alliance for Retired Americans, Progressive Democrats of America, California School Employee Association, Democracy for America, the California Health Professional Student Alliance, and many others. They have put out action alerts to supporters of SB 810 to call on five key state senators to vote Yes: Los Angeles area state senators Alex Padilla, Rod Wright, and Ron Calderon; San Diego area senator Juan Vargas, and Fresno/Bakersfield senator Michael Rubio. If supporters can bring just two of these state senators around in time for a Reconsideration vote today, then patients in California could very soon be able to choose which doctor to see (rather than submitting to a ‘network’ or their HMO). And the leading cause of bankruptcy for both the insured and uninsured – medical bills – could be eliminated.

A lot of people – i.e. all other advanced democracies in the world – think access to healthcare is a basic human right, and that organizing that access is one of the functions of a government and of a civilized society. In fact, in poll after poll, the majority of Americans support a publicly-funded universal health care system as well.

But never mind that. This is a time of economic struggle, an overstretched state budget, and financial uncertainty. Giving the government the job of administering health insurance at this particular juncture is above all else…the most fiscally conservative thing to do.

SB 810 would eliminate private health insurance entirely. All Californians’ healthcare costs would be paid for from one big pool. It’s just like the way people get insurance coverage now, except much much simpler, everyone would be covered, and the profit motive would be removed. And making health insurance a government-run program would dramatically reduce a huge portion of health care expenses that are eaten away by needlessly complicated administration costs. It’s the exact opposite of what the bill’s detractors pretend. Rather than creating more bureaucracy or paperwork, SB 810 would very quickly whittle down the costs of administering healthcare, currently at 33% of California’s total healthcare spending, to under 5%.

Providers would only have to bill one entity, a new California Healthcare Agency, and would have no need to chase after patients for unpaid balances, or argue with insurers about whether the insured really does need that organ transplant or dialysis. That’s how Sen. Leno’s site can claim that SB 810 would save California $20 billion in the very first year by reducing administrative costs alone.

Moreover, health insurance commissioners would not need to watch over insurers and fight their premium hikes on behalf of consumers (health insurance premiums grow 4 times faster than wages). After SB 810, there would be no premiums. There would be no deductibles. There would be no co-pays. There would be no private health insurance.

These companies would still find a way to sell insurance for non-essential services — just as in Canada insurers offer policies for things like private rooms should the insured be hospitalized. Insurance companies are nothing if not resourceful, and we shouldn’t worry about them too much. The big change would be that with a single-payer program, insurance companies could no longer build their business by keeping the whole health system stratified.

The U.S. spends twice as much of its GDP on healthcare as other wealthy nations do. It spends more, and gets less. Americans receive less doctor consultations, hospital care, and surgery than people in other industrialized nations, yet our healthcare costs are higher. Insurance companies, by insisting on their privileged position as middlemen between patients and physicians, balloon healthcare costs out of all proportion. Far from delivering medical care more cheaply, these companies take money from patients – and from non-patients, like those who put off getting care because they can’t afford their deductibles or co-pays but who keep sending in premiums to ward off catastrophe – and apply it to profit dividends, CEOs’ bonuses and even marketing to win over more customers. And all we get in exchange is the 37th best healthcare in the world, according to the WHO.

In addition to Big Insurance, we have Big Pharma driving up healthcare costs. Countries like Canada began long ago to use the leverage of government to negotiate down drug prices, but in the U.S., the government behaves as if it is powerless in the face of whatever pharmaceutical companies wish to charge. SB 810 would tackle prescription drug pricing in California by using its bulk purchasing power. Sen. Leno estimates that such savings on medication, as well as equipment, would save the state $5.2 billion.

Lack of or inadequate insurance leads many to wait until their health is seriously threatened and then seek care in Emergency wards, rather than getting preventative screenings or catching the problem at the initial symptoms. This is not only costly to the hospital which provides the Emergency services, and to taxpayers who have to make up the costs, but it escalates costs in general, since by the time these patients seek care they are in need of much greater intervention. SB 810 would transfer the emphasis to preventative care and primary care, and thereby save Californians an estimated $3.4 billion.

In short, Sen. Leno maintains that SB 810 would be fully funded from the money we already spend on health care, and that, to boot, California would save a total of $29 billion just in the first year.

Considering that these cost-cutting measures would completely solve the state’s fiscal crisis without either cutting social services or raising taxes, if Republicans really were fiscal conservatives they should have jumped on board with full support for SB 810. But of course insurance and pharmaceutical companies would be pretty unhappy with them, and campaign donations would stop flowing.

Considering that the Republicans’ objections to the federal Affordable Healthcare Act was that it would force people to buy private health insurance – the result of the Obama Administration’s barring single-payer advocates from all planning sessions – you would think that they would all be in favor of the freedom that SB 810 would bring. But of course it’s hardly the freedom of the 99% that matters.

SB 810 has strong backing from ordinary, non-radical Californians. Sen. Leno’s website lists 172 groups (unions and professional association, religious groups, city governments, Democratic Clubs, etc.) who endorse SB 810 and who have been working hard to make California the 2nd state in the nation to enact single-payer.

Single-payer advocates affiliated with the Campaign for a Healthy California include the American Medical Student Association, Consumer Federation of California, League of Women Voters of California, Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party, Amnesty International USA, California National Organization of Women, Courage Campaign, California Teachers Association, California Federation of Teachers, and California Faculty Association.

The bill’s champions expect that Governor Jerry Brown would happily follow in the footsteps of Vermont’s Governor Peter Shumlin and sign a single-payer bill. (The passage last spring of a publicly-run health insurance system made Vermont the first state in the U.S. to take this bold step.) If Sacramento fails to pass SB 810 this year because one Democratic senator voted No (Calderon) and four Democrats abstained (Padilla, Wright, Vargas, and Rubio), there will be a lot of very disappointed people in this state.

There will also continue to be 7 million Californians without insurance. Even after the federal Affordable Healthcare Act kicks in, 3 million Californians will remain uninsured, says Sen. Leno. Despite the fuss the country went through over health insurance reform, so-called ‘Obamacare’ would only manage to cover four out of five at best. And it is predicted that many who will still be unable to afford health insurance will choose to pay the fine instead. We will still have a tiered health care system. And we will stay pay more for less.

Alex Padilla (Pacoima/LA area)
Capitol – 916-651-4020
District – 818-901-5588

Rod Wright (Los Angeles area)
(916) 651-4025
(310) 412-0393

Juan Vargas (San Diego area)
Sac: (916) 651-4040
Dist: (619) 409-7690

Michael Rubio (Fresno/Bakersfield area)
Sac: (916) 651-4016
Dist: (661) 395-2620

Ron Calderon (Los Angeles area)
Sac: (916) 651-4030
Dist: (323) 890-2790

Keep the sunshine on California government

Since taking office, Governor Jerry Brown has been working bravely to knock down California’s dangerous deficit. He’s looking high and low for new funds – from reducing the number of state paid cell phones by half, halting new agency car purchases and by issuing a statewide hiring freeze that could save $363 million.

Gov. Brown isn’t just looking to cut out waste in government. He is also looking to continue collecting vital revenue by extending the Schwarzenegger era tax increases.

In fact, Governor Brown has been just about spot on. But even Jerry Brown can make mistakes – and he will make a big one if he follows through on his proposal to cut the state funds used to support California’s excellent open meeting laws.

In order to clean up California’s fiscal mess, our government is going to have to make some more tough decisions in the months and years ahead. Very important services are going to be cut. And taxes are almost certain to be raised.

Winning public support for these tough choices relies on making sure Californians understand how these choices were made. And thanks to our open meeting laws, we know that the public’s business is conducted in pubic.

But this week Governor Brown has put one of the foundations of a better government on the chopping block. He is seeking to cut several unfunded state mandates including ones that deal with providing notices to the public regarding open meetings of local bodies. Since the passage of the Brown Act in 1953, Californians have been guaranteed the right to attend and partake in public meetings. Cutting this funding will put the law in “legal limbo.”

While it is tempting to look at across the board cuts in times of budget crises, keeping our local governments open, transparent and responsible to the people remains paramount to a successful democracy. That’s why these cuts that are threatening our open meeting laws should be permanently off the table.

An open government is something that we all should demand, if not expect. We need only to look at the scandal in the City of Bell to understand how important the Brown Act – and public awareness – is to an effective and ethical government. The lack of transparency in Bell allowed city leaders to take about $5.5 million from the city. We must learn from the Bell example and make local governments even more open – not less.

When voters passed Proposition 59 in 2004, our Constitution changed for the better. Prop 59 mandated that meetings and records of local governments and officials be accessible to the general public. For that to happen, local governments are required to – among other things – print notices and agendas for upcoming meetings. The state is then required to reimburse them, to the tune of $16.6 million for 2008-2009.

Technically, the funding that went towards reimbursing local governments for photocopying and posting notices and agendas for public meetings was suspended by the legislature in last year’s budget. But Governor Brown is seeking to keep it suspended for the next fiscal year.

But at what cost?

According to the California League of Cities, no city has yet used the loophole of suspended funding to stop following the law. But that could change anytime.

Because of laws like the Brown Act and Proposition 59, California has truly been able to say that we have an open state government that encourages civic participation. This is a cornerstone of who we are as Californians. We understand that cuts must be made, but for the benefit of our state – and our democracy – let’s keep the meetings open and the sun shining in.

Phil Ting is Assessor Recorder of San Francisco. He is working on a state level to organize support for a split-roll tax system. On a local level, he is a candidate for Mayor of San Francisco looking to find ways to promote greater public participation and User-Generated Government.

Under Pressure, Newsom Misfires at S.F. Budget

Gavin Newsom’s Channel 5 interview last week revealed a Mayor defensive about his recent behavior, and it suggested he will lash out against critics by making vindictive budget moves.  It’s only November, but Newsom has already ordered every Department Head to propose 30% in cuts – alarming those who rely on City contracts to provide front-line services to the poor.  At the same time, the Mayor and his spokesman both said they will avoid touching the Police and Fire Departments – neither of whom got cut this year, while Health and Human Services were slashed.  Rather than react to another round of cuts, now is the time for progressives to step up and offer their solutions to a very real budget crisis.  With Newsom not running for Governor, why does he still need five press secretaries – or his “pet projects”?  And if the Mayor is really thinking about quitting politics (as the Wall Street Journal implied), why is he still sucking up to the Police and Firefighters Union – or the real estate lobby by pushing a dangerous proposal that will lead to mass evictions?

We’ve heard a lot in the past week that the City has a “$500 million deficit,” which is both true and misleading.  The Mayor’s Budget Office estimates that we will be $522 million in the red by the end of the next fiscal year (June 30, 2011) – but right now, the Controller says we have an operating deficit of $53 million.  To put things in perspective, the City plugged a $576 million deficit in June – but last December when the Mayor made mid-year cuts, we had an $118 million deficit.  Not to say that the crisis isn’t severe, but it is irresponsible for Newsom to throw this number around and talk about 30% cuts.

Already, the threat is scaring service providers – forcing them to prepare for another round of Beilenson Hearings, when they should be focusing on their jobs.  On Friday, Human Services Director Trent Rhorer sent out a memo to all contractors – implementing a moratorium on all budget modifications due to the Mayor’s request.  Non-profits that serve the poor have already scheduled meetings on how to prepare for the cuts, and it’s fair to say we are past the point of exasperation that the City threatens to cut our budget every year.

But not everyone has to worry about 30% in cuts.  Newsom’s spokesman said we will hold the line on the Police and Fire Departments.  The Mayor was even more explicit, as he told the Examiner: “there are certain things that just won’t be cut.  I don’t want people to think ‘Oh my God, 20 percent of the fire stations are closing or 20 percent of the police officers are going to be laid off.’  Some budgets will actually be bigger next year, not smaller.”

To add insult to injury, Police and Fire got raises this year – when Health and Human Services got slashed.  The Police budget grew by $13 million (the Mayor initially proposed $16 million, but the Board of Supervisors cut it down), and the Fire Department got an extra $2 million (down $6 million from what Newsom wanted.)  Meanwhile, the General Fund cut $20 million out of the Human Services Agency – even after the Board saved 4 million in add-backs.  The Mayor proposed $100 million in Health Department cuts, but only $12.5 million in programs were saved (not counting the Prop J’s that were nixed.)

In fact, this was the first year that anyone can remember the Police Department getting more money from the General Fund than the Health Department.  Moreover, state budget cuts from Arnold Schwarzenegger have almost exclusively hit Health and Human Services at the local level.  With Sacramento facing a $20.7 billion deficit – and Republicans who hold the budget hostage in the state legislature would rather see California fall off a cliff than raise taxes – it will get worse.

Moreover, the Mayor made some budget decisions in the past five years when times were good that allowed the Police and Fire Departments to get bloated.  As I reported on Friday, we had a huge spike in property tax revenue from 2005-2008 – because Downtown commercial buildings changed hands and got re-assessed.  Now with the real estate slump, they are filing appeals under state law to lower their tax bill.  But the City budget mushroomed during those years, and some will argue we were too dependent on this revenue stream.

Where did much of the money coming in from property taxes go?  The Police budget grew by 46% – in part due to big union contracts that Newsom signed to get re-elected, and the Chief not civilianizing positions in the Department – despite a voter mandate.  The Mayor also ignored warnings of a bloated Fire Department; we still have 38 Battalion Chiefs making over $160,000.  The Retirement Package for cops and firefighters are a ticking time bomb that requires attention.

Newsom’s City-funded campaign for Governor?  The Mayor has five press secretaries, and Nathan Ballard’s exit cries out the need to de-fund his position.  Same with Kevin Ryan of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.  311 and District Supervisors have rendered the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services obsolete, and does the 311 Call Center need to stay open 24 hours a day?

Then, there’s the Community Justice Center.  Good people work there, and Jeff Adachi deserves credit for giving it a try by staffing it himself.  But at times when programs that folks rely on to stay out of trouble are getting cut, it’s hard to justify the Court as is.  And we all know this was a chance for the Mayor to look good while running for Governor.

Gavin Newsom says our deficit is so bad, that “literally everything is on the table.”  But when pressed by the SF Appeal, the Mayor says he doesn’t want tax increases.  The only revenue solution Newsom supports is to speed up condo conversions, which the Supervisors “hate” – and for good reason.

First, from a fiscal perspective it is just a quick (and temporary) fix.  We would get a little revenue now, but we’ll be in the same posiiton next year.  Second, it would decimate our rental housing stock – empowering real estate speculators to go on a rampage of Ellis Act evictions, knowing the City will allow these properties to convert into condominiums.

Mass condo conversions have been kicked around for decades.  Whenever the City is in a fiscal crunch, those who stand to make millions sell it as a revenue option.  It is wholly unacceptable, for it would make it impossible for many San Franciscans to stay here.

Newsom is under pressure to look engaged – now that everyone has criticized his conduct since dropping out of the Governor’s race.  He will use the budget to “prove” that he’s back in the game – telling Willie Brown on Friday he’s “looking forward” to tackling the $522 million deficit.  And that should scare progressives.  Newsom is bitter at his critics, and the power of the Mayor’s Office gives him awesome power to trump the will of the Supervisors (and in a few cases, the voters.)  Rather than react to his cuts, we have to propose our own.

Paul Hogarth is the Managing Editor of Beyond Chron, San Francisco’s Alternative Online Daily, where this piece was first published.

Newsom’s City-Funded Campaign for Governor

It’s amazing what you learn about Gavin Newsom’s budget – after the Budget & Finance Committee starts to hold hearings.  While the Mayor’s public summary released on June 1st implied that Newsom planned to downsize 8% of his own staff, what he actually did was farm out positions and funds to other departments.  We also learned this week that the first things to go in the Mayor’s Office during mid-year cuts last year was (a) money for violence prevention programs, and (b) add-backs by the Supervisors.  Meanwhile, Newsom spends $473,122 to pay the salaries of five press secretaries – more than what he spends on seven liaisons for the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services (MONS).  The City has a Department of the Environment with its own Executive Director and 58 staff – but the Mayor’s Office has a Greening Director who makes $105,742, along with a Director of Climate Control.  Newsom is opposing Budget Analyst Harvey Rose’s recommendation to cut down his press operation, and even said Tuesday he might veto the Interim Budget (which the Supervisors amended to shift funds away from Police and Fire, and to Health and Human Services.)  If he pursues the latter, the City could be unable to spend money after July 1st – a government shutdown that would doom Newsom’s statewide ambitions.

Newsom announced on June 1st that his budget cut 28% of the Mayor’s Office, a claim that was quickly debunked after Beyond Chron read the 430-page summary.  His proposal would increase the Mayor’s Office budget by 60%, although Newsom’s Budget Director has clarified that most of that money comes from affordable housing funds from the federal stimulus.  If you look at the level of staff, there has indeed been shrinkage – albeit only by 8 percent.

Yesterday, the Board of Supervisors’ Budget Committee began the task of reviewing each agency’s budget – with presentations by Department heads, and recommendations by Budget Analyst Harvey Rose.  When you fine-tune numbers beyond what was only a summary, a more accurate picture starts to appear.  The Mayor’s Office budget has little to do with responding to a fiscal crisis where we “share the pain,” and more to do with preparing Newsom’s run for Governor.

First, let’s talk about the actual size of the budget.  It’s true that the Mayor’s Office will have 8% fewer employees (a net loss of five positions), and there has been a $15 million influx in new federal funds to the Mayor’s Office of Housing.  But what’s also true is that twenty positions are being reassigned out of the Mayor’s Office – twelve to the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, and eight to Department of Children Youth and Families.  These duties being transferred comes a natural $8 million cut to the Mayor’s Office – much of it in grant funds.  On balance, the Office isn’t being cut it all.

In December, Newsom announced that the City was in a financial crisis – and so  mid-year cuts were inevitable.  What did he cut out of the Mayor’s Office?  Eighty-one percent of the $650,000 cut was grants to non-profit organizations (including violence prevention money), even though the category of “assistance and grants” is less than half of his department’s budget.  “Add-backs” from the Board of Supervisors (i.e., programs the Mayor had cut that the legislative branch restored during budget season) were also targeted – such as $65,000 for Filipino employment services in the Excelsior.

So what did he not cut?  Who are the sacred cows in the Mayor’s Office?

It’s been a joke for years that Gavin Newsom governs by press release.  But now that he’s running for Governor, his City-funded media operation has become obscene.  Director of Communications Nathan Ballard makes $141,700 a year, while his deputy Brian Purchia gets $105,742.  The Mayor has three additional press people – one for Latino media and one for Asian media (who each get paid $80,626), along with a Communications Officer who makes $64,428.  Budget Analyst Harvey Rose has recommended that the last three positions be cut – as well as two unfilled press positions.  Newsom has opposed this suggestion.

It goes to show Newsom’s priorities – when he collectively pays his five-person press team more than seven liaisons at the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services.  If San Francisco taxpayers are asked to pay for Newsom’s political hacks, at least give them something useful to do – such as answer constituent complaints, direct citizens through the City’s bureaucratic maze and attend community meetings.  Despite Randy Shaw’s critical opinion of MONS as obsolete (now that the City has a much vaunted 311 Center), their job is to actually serve the people of San Francisco – rather than manipulate the media.

Despite the bad press that Newsom got when he stole funds from Muni to pay Wade Crowfoot’s six-figure salary, both the Mayor’s Greening Director and his Director of Climate Control are still gainfully employed in a deep recession.  What’s truly odd is that the City also spends $11 million to fund a Department of the Environment – complete with its own Executive Director (who the Mayor appoints), and a citizen Commission.  And why does the Mayor have an Education Policy Director on payroll at $122,403 a year – when we also have a Superintendent of Schools, and a Department of Children Youth and Families?

Harvey Rose has provided a list of recommended cuts to the Mayor’s Office that would save about $1 million.  Newsom has only agreed with a tiny handful, such as eliminating one of the vacant positions at MONS.  The Supervisors may have to cut the rest.

Will the Mayor Keep Fighting the Board?

After dueling rallies showcased the City’s competing priorities this week, the Board of Supervisors voted 7-3 to amend the Mayor’s Interim Budget.  Blasting Newsom’s proposal as unfairly placing cuts on public health and human services, the Board took $82 million out of Police, Fire and Sheriff so that all departments “share the pain.”  The Interim Budget is just a placeholder document – so that the City can pay its bills after July 1st, while the Supervisors and Mayor put final touches on the 2009-2010 budget.  But the symbolic message was effective, and will shape the rest of the budget conversation.

The Mayor could veto the Interim Budget, but the practical effect would be that the City government shuts down in July.  Which would be incredibly stupid for Newsom to do.  Like House Speaker Newt Gingrich was blamed in 1995 for causing the federal government shutdown, such a move would be viewed as petty and vindictive – while sacrificing public services in a recession.  It would be a distraction from Newsom’s race for Governor, and damage his career.  The Mayor, however, did tell a Channel 7 reporter on Tuesday he might do it, and is consulting attorneys about the consequences.

Newsom is angry that the Board effectively forced his hand in the budget process, but in a way he is getting his comeuppance.  Back in 2007, after a veto-proof majority of Supervisors appropriated $33 million for affordable housing, Newsom did not sign or veto it – instead choosing to simply not spend the money.  This was apparently legal, because the Supervisors cannot force the Mayor to spend money. All they can do is force him to not spend money (through a de-appropriation.)  In other words, Newsom outmaneuvered the legislative branch on a technicality.  But now, they have done the same.

This piece was first published in Beyond Chron.

Smart on Crime: Good for Public Safety, Good for Budgets

(I want to welcome SF’s District Attorney Kamala Harris. – promoted by Brian Leubitz)

States across our country are facing budget deficits. California is projected to begin next fiscal year with a deficit of nearly 25 billion dollars, equaling one fourth of the state’s entire general fund. Over 10 billion of that general fund supports corrections and law enforcement. In this fiscal crisis, there is no denying the facts: tough budget times are here for public safety agencies. As the District Attorney for the City and County of San Francisco, I am personally familiar with the difficult circumstances we face. Without a significant shift in local and state practices, we can predict that shrinking law enforcement and corrections funding will result in higher crime rates, less support for victims, and fewer offenders being held accountable. If ever there was a time to think outside the box and break with the failed approaches of the past, the time is now. We need to do something different.

In San Francisco, I have developed a smart on crime approach: we must be tough on serious and violent offenders while we get just as tough on the root causes of crime. In my office, we have raised felony conviction rates and sent more violent offenders to state prison, at the same time we have launched innovative, cost effective approaches to reduce recidivism, truancy, and childhood trauma. With a genuine investment in breaking cycles of crime, we can improve public safety at the same time that we save precious public resources.

EDIT by Brian: See the flip

Reentry: Why it Matters to Law Enforcement

Over the last thirty years, our prison population has soared. In 1980, California had a prison population of about 24,000 in a state of 24 million. Today we have an inmate population of 172,000 out of 36 million people. This means that since 1980, our population has grown by 50 % while our prison population has grown 617%.

Today, the majority of those inmates are not first-time offenders. Each year, approximately 70 percent of those released from California prisons commit another offense, resulting in the highest recidivism rate in the nation. These repeat offenses are preventable crimes that claim more victims and harm communities’ quality of life. It costs an estimated $10,000 to prosecute just one felony case, and about $47,000 per year to house just one inmate in prison. Every time an inmate is released and commits a new crime, local and state jurisdictions pay those costs over and over again.  To keep our communities safe and use public money wisely, we must ensure that people coming out of the criminal justice system become productive citizens and stay out.

Four years ago my office pioneered a model reentry initiative called "Back on Track" to reduce recidivism among nonviolent offenders. Back on Track combines accountability with opportunity to ensure that first-time nonviolent drug offenders are held accountable, stop committing crime and become self-sufficient. In Back on Track, offenders plead guilty and commit to strict court supervision as they complete an intensive personal responsibility program. They get trained for a job, go back to school, get current with child support, enroll in parenting classes, and become positive contributors in their communities. The program encompasses swift sanctions for making bad choices and clear incentives for good ones. As a result, less than 10 percent of Back on Track graduates have re-offended compared to a 54 percent recidivism rate statewide for the same population of offenders. We have achieved this success at a fraction of the cost of traditional corrections approaches. Back on Track costs about $5,000 annually per participant, compared to $35,000 to 47,000 for jail or prison.

To graduate, Back on Track participants must be employed or in school. The program has been selected as a national model by the National District Attorney’s Association and at least two jurisdictions have replicated the initiative. Back on Track demonstrates that preventing recidivism is both viable and cost-effective.

Truancy: Keeping Children in School Means Keeping Our Streets Safe

In 2007, after another year of high homicide rates in San Francisco, I asked my staff to review the victims’ histories to assess trends. We found that over the prior four years, 94% of homicide victims under the age of 25 were high school drop outs. We then reviewed SF public schools data and found that over 5,000 students were habitually or chronically truant each year, and nearly half of those kids were in elementary school. These are the kids on route to becoming high school drop outs.

In response, I joined with the San Francisco Unified School District to launch a citywide truancy initiative focused on getting elementary and middle school kids back in school. As the city’s chief prosecutor, I sent every parent in the district a letter explaining that I was prepared to prosecute parents if they broke the law by keeping their children out of school. I was surprised to discover that many parents didn’t know that California law makes education mandatory for children under the age of 18. Thousands of parents attended informational meetings on truancy after receiving the letter, and we fielded hundreds of calls from parents who had questions or needed help.

We also held face-to-face "D.A. Mediation" meetings with over 2,000 parents. Suddenly, the principals didn’t need to work so hard to convince parents to take seriously the consequences of keeping their child from school because a prosecutor was in the room. Through these mediations, we met parents in need of help to get their kids in school. One mother of three, for example, was homeless and holding down two jobs. We connected her to services so she could do what she wanted to do – be a good mother and put her children in school.

Mediations resulted in significant progress for most of the parents. Still, some continued to fail. In these cases, my office filed criminal charges. The children of these parents, some as young as six years old, had missed as many as 80 days of school out of a 180 day school year. Once we filed criminal charges, things started to change. Those parents report to a Truancy Court that combines consequences and support services to make sure that parents get their children in school.

Since we started this initiative, truancy rates for elementary school kids in San Francisco have dropped by 23 percent. And it did not take millions of dollars, bureaucratic red tape, or a decade to see results. It only took genuine commitment and a willingness to shake up the status quo.

What starts out as chronic truancy makes a child far more likely to end up dropping out of school, becoming a victim, or getting arrested. Taking swift corrective action now will reduce the likelihood of harmful and costly consequences later.

Childhood Trauma: Breaking the Silence to Help Children and Youth  

Last year in San Francisco, a teenage boy was gunned down while waiting outside a school for a ride. His senseless murder was witnessed by dozens of young students who were outside at the time. Months later, many of these youth had not accessed mental health support to recover from what they saw. Worse still, for some, it was likely not the first time they had witnessed violence. Some young people come from homes where violence is the norm, while others see violence in their neighborhoods far too frequently. The impact of repeated exposure to violence on children is enormous: they can’t concentrate in school, they’re detached, or they act-up and misbehave.

Like soldiers at war, children are highly likely to suffer from trauma from repeated exposure to violence. And like soldiers coming home, they often suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Unfortunately, many of these children go undiagnosed or are misdiagnosed and thereby not treated appropriately. Worse still, children repeatedly traumatized by violence at an early age are more likely to fall through the cracks and become either victims or perpetrators of violence later in life.

Studies have shown that up to 35 percent of children and youth exposed to community violence develop PTSD. Exposure to community violence affects everything from a child’s sleep, to their school success, to the physical development of their brains.

In the District Attorney’s Office, we often see the needs of children from distressed families or neighborhoods go untreated. To address these unmet needs, last year we joined with California State Senator Mark Leno to craft ground-breaking legislation to provide funding for mental health counseling for traumatized children and youth. Signed into law last year, our bill allows children who witness community violence to access up to $5,000 for therapy and mental health support.

When we look at children growing up in tough environments, we need to see them through a prism instead of a plate glass window. Left unaddressed, their complex and difficult surroundings can overwhelm their minds and harm their chances for future success. If we can recognize their needs and get timely help, we can substantially increase life prospects for these children before it’s too late.

What Needs to Happen Can Happen

These are just a few examples of what can be done to improve public safety and break the cycle of crime. Being smart on crime requires changing our thinking. Albert Einstein once said, "The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them." The State of California is at an economic crossroads that demands new approaches. I am confident that we can meet that demand through a long-term strategy of responsive, preventative and evidence-based "smart on crime" approaches, thereby ensuring a better and safer future for all of us.

This post was initially published at ACSblog: http://www.acslaw.org/node/13582

Newsom Budget Figures Don’t Add Up

(This is officially becoming a trend.  Read to the bottom for Newsom’s wrongheaded assessment of the May 19 special election. – promoted by David Dayen)

Mayor Gavin Newsom must assume that when releasing a budget everyone expects to have cuts, the press will just take a few pictures, jot down some snappy quotes, and – maybe – read his one-page press release.  Beyond Chron, however, bothered to review the whole proposal, and the numbers contradict what Newsom said in his speech – where he assured us Public Health cuts would be less severe than feared.  The budget has over $100 million in cuts for that Department, not $43 million as he claimed.  Newsom also said the Mayor’s Office would get a 28% cut, but the figures show only 9% of his staff are being laid off – and the division that runs his media operation would actually get bigger.  And in a strange twist, Newsom said he really didn’t like some cuts that he proposed – and would “count on” the Supervisors to restore them during the add-back process, but left unsaid where to find the money.  As San Francisco faces its worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression, Newsom bragged that Police and Fire are getting no layoffs – while the rich and Downtown businesses will not be paying more taxes.  He also warned more budget cuts are coming from the state, echoing the threats of Governor Schwarzenegger.

June 1st is when the Mayor has to submit a budget, and over the next month the Board of Supervisors’ Budget Committee will scrutinize his proposal, and offer some amendments before final passage in July.  Newsom took the unilateral step of making $71 million in mid-year cuts earlier this year without approval of the legislative branch, and the question now is how the Board will handle another onslaught of painful decisions – in a way that most fairly “shares the pain” to protect the most vulnerable.  But first, Gavin needed his orchestrated press event.

I’ve attended my share of press conferences in Room 200 – but yesterday’s one appeared calculated to keep most local media at bay.  Rather than have Mayor Newsom speak in the reception area, we were ushered into a back room.  Then, we were told we could not go inside – but could watch from behind a doorway, as elected officials and department heads crowded in to take their seats.  Before the event started, the staff asked homeless rights advocate Jennifer Friedenbach to leave because she was not “credentialed press” – although she was there to cover the event for Street Sheet.  Later on, the only courtesy that Newsom’s staff gave us was for each reporter to briefly step into the room (one at a time) to take photos of the Mayor giving his speech.

Newsom spoke for about an hour, outlining his budget proposal and how he “looked forward” to working with the Supervisors over the next month.  Despite the City facing a half-a-billion dollar deficit, Newsom said he had a “balanced budget with no taxes and no borrowing” which “doesn’t come close” to balancing it on the backs of Public Health (DPH) or Human Services (HSA).  The Mayor had asked all Department Heads to make 12.5% in cuts, but these agencies that serve the poorest were spared from such an extent – adding, he said, that HSA only had $27 million in cuts, and DPH only about $43 million.

It wasn’t until reading the 430-page document that I learned this was at best misleading, and at worst a lie.  You can probably get $43 million in Public Health by just counting the cuts to various contract services like substance abuse, mental health, Health At Home, community health, ambulatory care and emergency services.  But that still doesn’t count the $100 million in net budget cuts to S.F. General Hospital and Laguna Honda.  Newsom also claimed the City will be getting $80 million in federal stimulus funds to help with Medi-Cal reimbursements.  Turns out the actual figure is $37 million.

Newsom acknowledged that “layoffs are in the budget,” and 1,603 positions would have to be eliminated.  The Mayor added that he cut 28% out of his own budget, which he used to point out that everyone was asked to tighten their belts.  But the budget proposal shows that the Mayor’s Office would get a 60% increase, although much of that includes various funds and services.  Just looking at what percentage of staff would be laid off in that department, it’s only 9% – or less than the 12% target Newsom gave to all other agencies.  The Mayor’s Office of Public Policy & Finance (which includes his bloated media relations division) will actually get 29% more than this year under his proposal.

In a bizarre (almost Orwellian) moment, Newsom lamented some of his cuts – and said he hoped the Board of Supervisors would reverse them.  Specifically, he mentioned the mental health and substance abuse cuts in the Health Department budget.  “I’m counting on [the Board] to add back the things I don’t want cut,” he said.  But the Mayor’s budget proposal is supposed to be just that – his proposal – and the political fight then happens as the Supervisors debate his funding priorities, and vote to make any changes.

I asked Newsom why propose these cuts in the first place if he wants them reversed, and he replied “because I have to submit a balanced budget.”  I pointed out the Supervisors also must pass a balanced budget, and he replied they could use the “add-back” process.  But “add-backs” are only possible if there’s money, which is no guarantee in this year’s fiscal crisis.  Newsom said that the Board’s Budget Analyst Harvey Rose would figure it out later, like he does “every year” – even though this is no ordinary year.

One group the Mayor bragged won’t see layoffs is the Police, despite the controversy about them taking millions from Muni in “work orders” to patrol buses.  Now, a Channel 7 investigative report shows the cops aren’t doing what they’re getting paid for in that program.  The Supervisors may have pried $5 million from Police to give back to the MTA, but the Mayor’s Police budget still has a $14 million line item for work orders.  Newsom adds the Fire Department won’t have cuts, while the Firefighters Union pays his consultant – Eric Jaye – to run the campaign against “rolling brownouts” that would save money.

The Mayor concluded his remarks by discussing what could make our budget worse: the unresolved fiscal crisis in Sacramento.  Governor Schwarzenegger’s May revise proposed borrowing money from city and county governments to help the state’s financial situation, which could blow another $175 million hole in the City’s deficit.  Newsom called it a “done deal” in his speech, but I got him to acknowledge (after the speech) that two-thirds of the state legislature must still approve it – before Arnold has carte blanche to raid California’s broke localities.

Newsom also addressed the state’s recent special election, and said the “message was clear – the people want us to find $6 billion in more cuts.”  That’s a disturbing analysis, as polling evidence shows that the voters did not vote “for cuts” when they rejected a fatally flawed budget package that was the product of political extortion.  The state budget can also be balanced with deeply popular revenue measures – such as an oil severance tax, or restoring upper-income tax brackets to what Republican Governors Pete Wilson and Ronald Reagan agreed to during hard times.  We need to fight for this.

Gavin Newsom wants to be Governor, but his analysis of the state budget mess is the last thing progressives need right now – and calls into question whether he’s ready for prime time.  As Schwarzenegger pushes for an “all-cuts” budget, we need Democrats in Sacramento who fight back – and help build momentum and public outrage against the two-thirds rule.  Newsom supports lowering the threshold to pass a state budget, but he has not shown the willingness to lead on this issue.  For now, progressives should be looking elsewhere …

Paul Hogarth is the Managing Editor of BeyondChron, San Francisco’s Alternative Online Daily, where this piece was first published.

Arnold’s New Budget Deficit – Trust But Verify

I have several questions about this sudden restatement of the budget deficit for the next year.  First of all, this is not an independent assessment by the Legislative Analyst, but from the Department of Finance.  No report was released accompanying the budget revise, just some raw numbers in a letter to the legislature.  Apparently a dual revision, one based on whether the ballot measures pass and one based on whether they fail, will be illegally delivered on Thursday, despite the fact that the February budget deal calls for it to be released on May 28.  The Governor is getting around this by calling the release a “summary,” allowing them to AGAIN show no numbers, just a “trust me” belief that the deficit is now $15 billion, $21 billion if Props. 1C, 1D, and 1E go down.

More curious is this bit from John Myers:

Taking a closer look at the $15.4 billion deficit projection, aides to Schwarzenegger say that a full $7.4 billion of that is in the fiscal year that ends just 50 days from now; the remaining $8 billion is in the 2009-2010 fiscal year.

That $8 billion in the ’09-’10 year matches up with March’s projection by Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor. And given that Controller John Chiang announced last Friday a $2.1 billion shortfall in anticipated revenues for the current year… that leaves about $5 billion in what budget watchers might call “new” deficit in this announcement.

That doesn’t make a lick of sense.  I believe Chiang’s numbers that we’re $2 billion short in tax collection in the current year through April 30.  I do not at all believe a Governor who has lied repeatedly about budget projections throughout his entire career, claiming $5 billion in new deficit in the last 50 days of the budget year.  Especially because there are no independent numbers to check.

Like Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor, I would not be SURPRISED that we’re not $15 billion out of balance.  Some expenditure increases contributed to this deficit, and clearly the worsening economic picture has strained the revenue side.  But I’m funny this way – I actually want to see the data.  The Governor has spent the entire special election trying to scare people into compliance; would anyone but this Hail Mary pass with one week to go past him?