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States Are Hit Hard by Economic Downturn

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed a $4.8 billion cut in education services as California faces a $16 billion shortfall.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed a $4.8 billion cut in education services as California faces a $16 billion shortfall. (By Rich Pedroncelli -- Associated Press)
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Instead of raising taxes, most states with shortfalls are curtailing services, and the effects are already being felt nationwide. Some of the most dramatic cuts are being made in California, Maine and Rhode Island, according to budget experts, with New Jersey not far behind.

California is facing the worst budget crisis, with a $16 billion shortfall, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has proposed a $4.8 billion cut in education services. About 20,000 teachers, counselors, librarians, nurses and other support staff members have received notice of potential layoffs, according to the state's Education Department.

Los Angeles, which has the state's largest school district and a $6 billion budget, faces a $460 million cut for the next school year -- the dollar equivalent of shutting down the entire district for two weeks.

In Thousand Oaks, Calif., the Conejo Valley Unified School District, home to 30 schools and 22,000 students, has already closed two elementary schools for next year. Superintendent Mario Contini said layoffs could be next. "School districts have been making cuts every year, and there isn't much left to cut," he said. "We've already cut the flesh to the bone, and now we're removing the skeletal parts. It's that severe."

Schwarzenegger has also proposed $650 million in cuts to the Healthy Families Program and Medi-Cal, which together provide health-care services to more than 7 million senior citizens, disabled people and children in the state. Adults under the Medi-Cal program would lose their dental benefits, as well as optometry and psychology services.

The California Department of Public Health is also facing an $11 million cut to AIDS services, with the bulk of that -- $7 million -- coming from a program that helps low-income Californians, such as Orozco, obtain lifesaving antiretroviral medicine.

Orozco had been paying $400 per month for the 15 daily medications he needs. But when his allotment under the program ran out, his share jumped to $3,200, and he could no longer afford five of the drugs.

"We want to continue to live, you know," he said. "We need to continue fighting what this is. I've been dealing with this since 1983. Every day, it's a fight. It's not easy. Either they help us do something to fight this, or we're going to die."

A recent 50-state survey by the Associated Press showed that hundreds of thousands of poor children, the disabled and the elderly stand to have their health coverage eliminated as a result of budget cuts, and more than 10 million people would lose access to dental care, specialists and name-brand prescription drugs.

Budget experts said they see a repeat of the pattern that happened during the recession of 2001: States generally cut health services and medical benefits first, because these costs are often rising more rapidly than others, and the savings tend to be immediate.

Subsidies to higher education are also a favored target for budget cuts -- mainly because policymakers often believe that universities can find money from other sources, such as private donations or higher tuition.

Budgets for parks and recreation, and for natural resources and science, also stand to take a hit.

In cash-strapped Michigan, dealing with the struggles of the automobile industry, the Department of Natural Resources is closing 20 campgrounds, including the highly popular and rustic Pinney Bridge State Forest Campground, considered one of the most beautiful in the Lower Peninsula. The department also plans to end its studies of fish populations in the Great Lakes, and 14 conservation officials are being laid off.

Hunters in Michigan will also find their license fees increased.

In Illinois, Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) has proposed ending a popular controlled pheasant-hunting program at state sites. Outraged hunters have said that among those affected will be the young and the handicapped, who have access to special hunts under the state program.

Surdin reported from Los Angeles. Staff writer Kari Lydersen in Chicago contributed to this report.

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