Fiona Ma for State Assembly

Budget cuts threaten education and healthcare, community groups told

The message echoed loud and clear at the Pacifica High School gymnasium in Oxnard this afternoon: A better California has to include all of its people.

The 2010 California Shared Prosperity Statewide Candidates Forum at the gym boiled down to deep concerns over looming state budget cuts in healthcare and education programs.

Among those worried was Aracely Preciado of Port Hueneme, a former elderly care provider who wondered how her 84-year-old grandfather is going to make it if the state In-Home Supportive Services program suffers cutbacks, as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed.

Her grandfather cannot read nor write, has diabetes and depends on the program for washing clothes, preparing food, trips to the doctor’s office and such.

“The governor has proposed all these cuts,” Preciado, 37, said. “How would my grandfather take care of himself if he doesn’t have this program?”

The keynote speaker, state Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, told Preciado and the audience that the Democrat-backed state budget plan would fund the In-Home program.

The event is part of an ongoing effort to elevate the voices of California families and the less powerful, said Marcos Vargas, executive director of the Ventura-based Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, or CAUSE, one of the groups that spearheaded the forum.

An “endless parade” of budget cuts in recent years is threatening schoolchildren, the elderly, immigrants, minorities and the vanishing middle class, Vargas said.

“We are mobilized, we are powerful and we will be at the ballot box in 2010,” Vargas told the crowd, which consisted almost entirely of representatives of progressive community groups who gathered from across the state.

But the collective message largely fell on deaf ears, at least in terms of invited candidates. Only one, Larry Aceves, who is running for state superintendent of public instruction, showed up in person. His opponent, Tom Torlakson, sent in a tape.

Gubernatorial candidates Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman — for whom the event was originally geared —were no-shows. Brown sent a statement thanking forum leaders for the invitation and that he’s working to solve the state’s problems.

State Controller Jerry Chiang also sent a tape; his opponent in the controller race, Tony Strickland, declined to participate.

State Assembly Speaker John Perez also was slated to appear but canceled late due to what were termed “critical negotiations” over the state’s budget impasse.

High school and college students voiced worries about cuts that have cost them music programs and teachers. They said the state needs money and resources to improve schools, close the education gap for minorities and beef up pre-school programs, they said.

Aceves said “Sacramento has failed our schools.” He cited the importance of pre-school education and said he won’t stand for cuts. He twice said he would support raising taxes, which drew some applause from the crowd.

In his taped message, Torlakson said he has pledged to not cut spending on education and said that early childhood education is a top priority for him. “We should be adding millions of dollars, not cutting,” he said.

The event was billed as non-partisan, but that didn’t stop Ma from urging the crowd to “vote Brown and down,” as in straight down the Democratic ticket. That drew loud cheers.

“This is a very crucial election year,” Ma said. “These are difficult times. The budget crisis in California is unprecedented.”

Like others, she said another key component is for people to get active, call their legislators and participate in policy efforts.

At day’s end, Preciado, who once was an elderly care provider and is now a CAUSE worker, seemed satisfied that she was able to voice her concerns about her grandfather, though she indicated a little disappointment that more elected officials didn’t show up. But those who did seemed to care, she added.

“I think this helped,” Preciado said. “And I’m pretty sure a lot of people came away more informed.”