Grim, dire, unprecedented, catastrophic, devastating. Officials from school districts and cities, counties, special districts and state programs are grasping for adjectives to describe California's budget crisis. Those are some.
"It's grim. There's no other word for it," State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, said Tuesday of the "unprecedented" economic catastrophe California faces in the wake of overwhelming voter defeat of a package of propositions aimed to help close California's $21.3 million budget gap.
School districts, cities, counties and special districts throughout the state are girding for a massive impact that will land primarily on education and health and human services programs, according to officials.
Santa Clara County officials are huddled in meetings trying to assess how badly the county's $4 billion annual budget half of which goes to health, welfare and other discretionary programs that will be hit.
It will be very bad, Supervisor Liz Kniss, who represents Mountain View, said Thursday.
"I think we're looking at amputation of programs. We're not looking at surgical removal (of program components) any more but at major cuts of entire programs."
She said such cuts would be felt especially hard in health and human services.
"I see our tightly woven social and safety network really beginning to develop enormous holes in it that I don't think will be mended easily, if ever," Kniss said of cutbacks at the county level.
"The holes are getting bigger, and may soon be larger than the net itself," she said.
Simitian said he's never seen a situation even close to the present crisis in his 25 years as an elected official, serving on the Palo Alto school board and City Council, Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, state Assembly and Senate.
"We've had (political) debates in previous years, when we had to cut the budget severely," Simitian said. He said the legislative debate "played out again in February" when the Legislature tackled a projected $42 billion state budget shortfall.
"We dealt with $36 billion" and moved $6 billion into the package of propositions, all but one of which failed resoundingly, he said.
"This is not just like 'another hard year, only more so.' This is a qualitatively different kind of experience: a worldwide recession with revenues plummeting as a result of a failed economy," Simitian said. "State revenues went down 35 to 40 percent boom, just like that."
"We are facing a situation that is orders-of-magnitude greater than anything we've faced before," he said. "There's no way to put a happy face on this.
"Because public education is half the budget, there is no way the state is going to save $21 billion without some really painful cutbacks."
Health and welfare programs constitute another 30 percent of the state budget, he said. There will be a heavy impact on counties, which are mandated to implement many such health and "safety net" programs.
Some people have suggested making deep cuts in the state's prison system, but prisons and related services account for only about 10 or 11 percent of the state's budget, he said. The state is also under federal-court order to increase spending on prisons in health and some other areas, he noted.
Some Midpeninsula municipalities and school districts, including in Mountain View, report that use of reserves may help them avoid the worst of the impacts in the short term. But the impacts on county services will be felt in both Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.
Kniss said cutbacks being discussed for Santa Clara County include numerous prevention and diversion programs, including public health nurses who provide front-line care to the chronically ill and elderly. She said one program that will likely be cut provides counseling, job training and recovery guidance for people released from jail or prison for drug-related offenses.
Such a cut would make it more difficult for many of the 38,000 prisoners Schwarzenegger has said might be released from state prisons to save money, as many are there for drug-related offenses and related crimes, Kniss said.
She said once such amputations are made the programs tend to simply disappear forever rather than being recreated later. She compared the cuts to the closure of state mental hospitals in the 1960s that resulted in an influx of homeless persons into communities.
Community college districts will be hard hit, along with colleges and universities and community school districts.
Martha Kanter, chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, informed all faculty and staff members in an e-mail memo Thursday that the combination of declining tax revenues and the state's "dire budget situation" will mean layoffs.
"This is devastating news for all of education and we wish it were not so," she said in the memo. The district could face an immediate 2009-2010 school-year shortfall of between $19 million and $25 million on a total budget of $185 million, according to rough estimates presented Thursday at a budget meeting.