SACRAMENTO, Calif. - On a cold, rainy evening in the Meadowview neighborhood, where unemployment and poverty were widespread long before the current crisis, about 100 people turned out for a town hall meeting to discuss Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget. Brown has proposed a combination of more than $12 billion in cuts plus extending last years' temporary increase in income and sales taxes for several more years. This would require a June referendum.
In addition he wants to make many state-run services into county responsibilities.
If the tax extension proposition passes, Brown promised no cuts to the current funding for K-12 and higher public education. If the extension doesn't pass, he said, the necessary cuts would be "draconian."
Organized by newly elected State Assembly member Roger Dickinson, the meeting was dominated by his staff, and many people complained that they weren't given a chance to speak their minds.
But every attendee was supplied with an electronic device with which they could vote on a series of multiple-choice questions on where cuts should be made - to education, health and human services? - and where new revenue might be found. The results were immediately displayed on a large screen.
To no one's surprise, the majority voted to expand funds for public education and Medicare, and make no cuts to human services, CalWorks or SSI supplementation.
On ways to increase revenue, they voted to extend the increased income and sales taxes, and to raise income tax for upper income families and corporations, while reducing corporate tax breaks.
They also voted to impose an oil severance tax, and for regular property tax re-assessment of non-residential property. (Under California's Proposition 13, both residential and business property are reassessed only when they are sold.)
Two days later, on a sunny Saturday morning, another town hall meeting was held in a more prosperous neighborhood not far to the north, where, many of the residents are public employees.
At least 120 people came, creating a standing-room-only situation in the community room of the Belle Cooledge Library branch.
Organized by Darrell Steinberg, State Senate President Pro Tem, this meeting followed the traditional "town hall" format. After introductory remarks by Steinberg, the floor was opened for questions and comments from the audience.
Proposals ranged from raising revenue by selling advertising space on state buildings and websites, to cutting legislators' pay and perks, closing prisons and eliminating excess bureaucracy in state government.
Others proposed that corporations be required to prove that the tax credits they get actually create jobs.
Community activist Manny Gale spoke for many attendees when he said that the proposed cuts amount to "legislating that millions of Californians are expendable," and pointed out that 50 percent of California corporations pay no taxes.
Suzanne Brooks, a leader in the International Association of Women of Color Day, accused the governor's proposals of ignoring the effects of racism. "Forty percent of housing foreclosures affect women of color," she told the Assembly member.
While Steinberg asserted several times "there is no money," senior activist Nell Ranta drew applause from the audience when she told him that 45 of the richest corporations in California do not pay taxes. "Children, seniors and the disabled are dying from these cuts, while the money lines in the pockets of these sons-of-bitches," Ranta said.