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Pleas Make Crisis Personal

Messages from their constituents put 'human face' on cuts for legislators.

February 09, 2003|Nancy Vogel and Carl Ingram | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — For those Californians who can't afford $1,000 tickets to their state lawmakers' seafood smorgasbords or Mardi Gras-themed fund-raisers, there are the old tools of democracy: letters, phone calls and faxes -- and not-so-old e-mails.

By the thousands each day, ordinary Californians try to influence the 120 legislators and one governor who are weighing deep budget cuts and new taxes to cover one of the worst state budget shortfalls in the nation.

The concern reaches the Capitol in ways both heart-wrenching and impassive, from the hand-written letter with a photo from the mother of a 10-year-old mentally disabled girl to the ready-made, anti-tax e-mails sent in bulk to every legislator.

Several lawmakers agreed to share their correspondence last week, to give The Times a glimpse of how Californians are reacting to the budget crunch.

The correspondence comes in waves and themes, depending on which program lies below the cleaver and how well Capitol lobbyists can mobilize the teachers, mayors, podiatrists or winery owners who might be put at risk by the latest moves in Sacramento.

One day, Assemblyman Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) got 6,000 e-mails opposing an increase in the annual fee to register a car or truck.

In the office of Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), a former teacher and the chairwoman of the Education Committee, hundreds of letters arrived on a single day opposing cuts to the regional schools that teach trades.

On another day, 649 letters arrived, nearly all of them about another issue: the governor's proposal to shift property tax revenues from 50 rich school districts to poorer schools in the same county.

"I will dutifully pay more than my fair share of income taxes," wrote one father from Hillsborough, an affluent town outside San Francisco. "But if you mess with my kids' school, you will create a lifelong and highly motivated adversary."

In the truckloads of mail sorted in the Capitol basement, such threats are outnumbered by the pleadings of some of California's most helpless people. Students, sick people and the elderly seem bound to lose, as the Legislature and Gov. Gray Davis wrestle with a budget shortfall estimated at $26 billion to $35 billion over the next 17 months. That's because more than 70% of California's total revenue -- $96 billion this year -- is spent on education, health and social services.

"I'm asking you to protect funding for long-term care," reads one letter scrawled in shaky handwriting by a nursing home resident. Her four-line letter repeated several words, including her signature.

The correspondence varies by lawmaker too. LaMalfa, a newly elected rice farmer from the Sacramento Valley, tallied 19 e-mails and 25 letters on Wednesday. "PLEASE don't cut any money from education!!!!" read one from a Willows schoolteacher.

Meanwhile, Assemblywoman Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park), a member of both the Budget and Health committees, received 164 letters about Davis' proposal to reduce state payments to nursing homes by 10%.

"Please reconsider your decision on cutting our budget," wrote a nursing home worker named Claudia. "We do so much for the little amount of money that you pay us."

In the office of Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge), 20 letters arrived Wednesday. The day started with an 8 a.m. fund-raiser and ended with a 6:30 p.m. dinner with Assemblyman Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach).

In between, Richman discussed Medi-Cal cuts with a nonprofit health-care provider, reviewed energy legislation, gave the keynote speech at a California Psychological Assn. luncheon, spoke at a UCLA Center for Health Policy reception and met with representatives of the Personal Insurance Federation of California, among other appointments.

One of the letters waiting for him came from a Valencia mother. She urged Richman to fight cuts to state programs for mentally disabled children, such as the 21 regional centers that provide family support, counseling and teaching.

"The services my daughter receives help to give her the feeling of being independent, alive and a part of the larger community," the mother wrote. "So many children at her age (age 10) have all types of sports and hobbies available to them. The very few sports and hobbies offered by specialists are so expensive, and would be unobtainable.... She has a mind that loves and understands the world around her. How could we cut her off from all that if we just let her do nothing but watch TV and videos all day?"

At the other end of the correspondence spectrum, lacking poignancy but carrying some punch, are campaigns that flood Capitol offices with hundreds of e-mails and faxes.

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