A people’s “day of reckoning”

June 30, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO--The drive by California politicians to balance their budget on the backs of the most vulnerable in society--poor children, the disabled, the ill and students lost in the shuffle of California's overstretched public education system--continues to touch off demonstrations and dissent across the state.

Recently, activists called for actions in response to a June 3 speech by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "California's day of reckoning is here," Schwarzenegger said on the floor of the State Assembly. "Our wallet is empty. Our bank is closed. Our credit is dried up...We must make these cuts and live within our means because what is the alternative?"

The alternative is taxing the vast fortunes of California's superrich and corporate plutocrats in the oil industry, which Schwarzenegger will have to be pressured to do. So activists organized a week of action under the slogan of "A People's Day of Reckoning."

The People's Day of Reckoning Coalition brought together a number of organizations and advocacy groups, including the Los Angeles Stop the Cuts Coalition, Communities Actively Living Independent and Free, California Partnership for Women and Children, and Health Access California.

Consisting of rallies, candlelight marches and sit-ins up and down the state, thousands of seniors, working families, persons with disabilities, social workers and their loves ones gathered to bear witness to the devastating cuts.

In San Francisco, "The budget is killing me!" read fliers taped to the wheelchairs of disabled rights activists. More than 200 people--many of whom were seniors, the disabled and health care workers--rallied in the Civic Center on June 23 to protest cuts to health and human services.

After activists occupied McAllister Street in front of the Earl Warren Building, the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) arrested 17 people for blocking traffic. Since most of those arrested were physically disabled and required the assistance of electric wheelchairs that could not be loaded into police vans, the SFPD chose to barricade, detain and cite these protesters right then and there.

Activists led fiery chants, including, "We're here, we're loud, we're disabled and proud!" "Health care is a human right, we will not give up this fight!" and "Save our seniors, save our kids, tax the greedy corporate pigs!"

"We should find other ways to cut the budget," said Gus Gomez, pointing out the contradiction between politician's rhetoric and reality. "Those on top have to sacrifice. If it's 20 percent [of their income], that's fine with me. I know they have mortgages to pay, but they have to take a cut like the rest of us. They shouldn't stop people from getting their medicine. We need a single-payer system now."

Russell Rawlings agreed. "In a crisis, everyone has to pitch in," he said. "There will be cuts, but we need new taxes, too. Oil companies, tobacco companies, and liquor companies need to pay their fair share."

In San Diego, about 100 people gathered June 23 in front of the California State building at noon on a workday to protest the proposed cuts.

Camille Zombro, president of the San Diego Education Association, spoke of "overworked school staff bracing for bigger class sizes," even though "the governor's own study showed California public schools were 40 percent underfunded even before the last round of cuts."

Aida Reyes of the Supportive Parents' Information Network, an organization of welfare parents, said her group opposes the elimination of CalWORKs, "which has been cut year after year," not only for themselves "but also for the caseworkers, who have been stripped of the tools they need to help families."

Twenty-one organizations sponsored the rally, including several unions, service providers, disability rights organizations and activist groups. Yet the turnout could have been larger had all the unions publicized the action among their own members. And while the crowd was spirited, the speakers often harped on the conservative message coming from the leadership of the Service Employees International Union--that we need a "balanced approach" to the budget crisis (in other words, accepting some cuts).

There is agreement among the groups that organizing needs to continue. To be effective, though, a democratic and militant approach that taps into growing class anger is needed.

CALIFORNIA FACES a $24.3 billion budget deficit, and Schwarzenegger and his administration have proposed a number of draconian policies that would in part balance the budget by cutting $2.4 billion in funding for vital health services. The state legislature has already rejected many of these cuts as too severe.

The hardship these proposals would wreak is significant:

-- Medi-Cal eligibility would be reduced, virtually denying coverage to nearly 1 million Californians, including many low-income working parents below the poverty line, seniors and people with disabilities.

The Healthy Families Program would be permanently eliminated under this proposal, resulting in 1 million children being denied coverage.

Access to mental health care, prescription drugs, family planning services, substance abuse treatments, skilled nursing facilities, dialysis and emergency services for the undocumented would be reduced by limiting payments and coverage for Medi-Cal or other health services and providers.

Critical health and prevention programs, such as adult day health care, AIDS drugs, HIV education and prevention, maternal and child health, and children's dental disease prevention programs would be eliminated.

Additionally, there are billions of dollars of cuts from the In-Home Support Services program, SSI grants, CalWORKS, and cash and food assistance for legal immigrants. These programs would either be significantly reduced or almost entirely eliminated.

The economic impact of the governor's proposed budget cuts would be profound, leading to 630,000 lost jobs, a 2.2 percent reduction in the overall economy and more than 2 million Californians losing health coverage, according to Ken Jacobs of the UC-Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.

Already in May, California's unemployment rate climbed to 11.5 percent, the highest level on record according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

In a June 15 Los Angeles Times article, Michael Hitzik outlined an alternative to cutting California's social programs to ribbons--tax "the biggest, fattest target of all: the oil industry."

California is the third-biggest oil producer in the country and the only one of 22 major oil states to give the industry a free ride on taxes, according to Hitzik. ""How embarrassing is it for California to be hanging there alone?" wrote Hitzik, who goes on to disclose that "that outstanding anti-tax crusader, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, in 2007 raised her state's tax to 25 percent of the value of extracted oil and gas."

So even if a 2006 proposition had capped California's tax levy at a measly 6 percent, the state would have generated more than $1 billion a year at the current world benchmark price of about $70 a barrel. By contrast, Palin's tax rate of 25 percent could generate $4 billion for the seniors, disabled and social workers of California.

While the wealth generated from the extraction of California's natural resources should be going toward human need, not corporate greed, it is going to take a movement to change the priorities of the system. And the People's Day of Reckoning Coalition is mobilizing and organizing those most affected by the backward policies coming from California politicians.

This week of action also celebrates the 10th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1999 Olmstead decision, which concluded that confining persons with disabilities in institutions without adequate medical reasons is a form of discrimination that violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. Instead, states must direct their health programs for persons with disabilities towards providing community-based care.

"Many people don't know about the Disabilities Rights Movement," said Jessica Lehman, a community organizer with Community Resources for Independent Living and a wheelchair-bound civil disobedience liaison with the SFPD, in an interview. "It's alive and well, and we are here to fight for our rights!"

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