The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “coincidence” as: 1. The act or condition of coinciding. 2. The occurrence of events that happen at the same time by accident but seem to have some connection.
Notice that the primary definition does not include the word “accident.”
Einstein attributed such apparent synchronicity to a higher power, saying, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” In “Othello,” Shakespeare thought these connections were a simple construction of the mind, saying, “Trifles light as air are to the jealous confirmations strong as proofs of holy writ.”
Science fiction writers, who often create whole new worlds in order to honestly assess the deficiencies and dangers of the “real” one, devote a lot of ink to speculating on events that coincide and whether such connections may have been intended. In fantasist Emma Bull’s opinion, “Coincidence is the word we use when we can’t see the levers and pulleys.”
So far as the California budget is concerned, I’m leaning toward Bull (no pun intended).
Ray Bradbury, whose death this year brought renewed attention to his body of work, wrote as if all coincidence was just a bunch of facts whose relationships we had yet to discover. In his popular novel, “Fahrenheit 451,” books have been banned and the only job of public firemen is to burn as many as possible (Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper burns). He must have been amused, therefore, at the coincidental (?) choices made by Amazon in naming their electronic readers (which threaten to do away with paper books, retaining the content, but making them ever more ephemeral). What did Amazon call their hardware? Kindle. And Fire.
The governor’s proposed May Revision presents budgetary side by sides that invite speculation about coincidence, at least in the larger picture. For instance, as in January, the new Child Maintenance Program, that is, the CalWORKS child-only payments to families where no adult satisfies stringent federal work requirements, is proposed to pay about $375 a month to sustain a family of three. Coincidentally, the May Revise also tells us that if we bring home the 9,500 California inmates now serving their terms outside California (in privately-run prisons), we can save $318 million, which tells us that we are spending eight times more to house one out-of-state prisoner than to feed a family of three.
Everyone will assure you there is no connection. But, as Speaker Willy Brown told me in my first Assembly year, “The budget is the bill that reveals the state’s real policies and priorities.”
The governor relented on tightening work requirements for Cal-WORKS recipients, allowing participation requirements to be met through a combination of state-specific activities (such as education and training). He also agreed to apply his new two-year lifetime limit (it was five years) only prospectively. CalWORKS still takes a big hit, however, with an almost $880 million drop generated by other changes in eligibility.
In addition, In-Home Supportive Services, which provide assistance to seniors and those with disabilities, gets an additional 7 percent across the board haircut, continuing and deepening an existing 3.6 percent reduction that ended on July 1 of this year.
The biggest change in the May Revise prison budget was the increased expenditure of $295 million from the General Fund in 2011-12, and $128 million in 2012-13, to fund court-ordered inmate medical costs. The Supreme Court found the overcrowding and medical conditions in California’s prisons to be “cruel and unusual punishment,” so the prisons are under the supervision of a receiver, who required the increased expenditures.
The May Revise also rescinds a January proposal to further realign juvenile offenders to the counties and instead retains the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) for the housing and treatment of the most serious and violent juvenile offenders. However, the staff within DJJ headquarters and facilities is reduced, the jurisdiction of the DJJ is reduced from inmates up to 25 years old to inmates up to 23 years old, and the state will now charge counties more per juvenile to house them in state facilities. Total savings: $25 million.
Incidentally, if you wonder what we spend per prisoner in California, it’s about $49,000 per inmate, per year, with about half of that attributable to fixed costs (security personnel, parole operations, facility operations, and administration), and half to what are usually termed “marginal costs,” that is the cost of adding one more prisoner to the population, with fixed costs already in place. Bringing out-of-state prisoners home is projected to save money because, while we have been spending about $33,000 per inmate out of state, beds are emptying at home because of realignment. Therefore, the thinking goes, we save the entire cost of out-state incarceration to fill beds we’re already paying for at home.
In 1788, in “Federalist No. 78,” Alexander Hamilton wrote, “Whoever attentively considers the different departments of power must perceive, that, in a government in which they are separated from each other, the judiciary, from the nature of its functions, will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution; because it will be least in a capacity to annoy or injure them.”
Indeed, although they have the ultimate power to declare a legislative or executive act to be unconstitutional, the courts are unable to declare war, enact a law or have any say over the totality of their own budget. Since 2007, California courts have been cut by over $653 million, $606 million of that in cuts to entry-level courts, the trial courts. As you no doubt remember from the fourth grade, the three levels of courts in California are: 1) the trial courts, who hear everything in the first instance, except for CEQA claims related to one football stadium in Los Angeles; 2) the appellate courts and 3) the California Supreme Court.
The May Revise proposes $544 million in further General Fund reductions to the courts in 2012-13. Of that, $419 million is in one-time cuts and $125 million in ongoing cuts. This is accomplished, in part, by offsetting much of the diminution with accumulated reserves. (And then there were none). Court construction is also delayed, with $240 million of construction funds redirected to support trial court operations. Civil courtrooms, and a few criminal courtrooms, continue to be shuttered throughout the state. In Los Angeles County, for instance, 56 courtrooms are now dark due to previous cuts.
As to whether there is any relationship among these decisions, or, indeed, the education budget decisions referred to in my last essay … the levers and pulleys remain invisible.
Sheila Kuehl served in the California Legislature for 14 years, both in the Assembly and State Senate. She is the founding director of the Public Policy Institute at Santa Monica College. For more of her essays, visit http://www.sheilakuehl.org/