When Politics Becomes a Carnival

by David Gorn

TOPIC ALERT:

The annual California State Fair opened in Sacramento on Wednesday, and political activists from around the state gathered outside the Capitol Building to stage their own version of it.

They call it the Un-Fair.

Among the balloons and streamers on the South Lawn you could find the Wheel of Misfortune -- where, no matter how hard you spin, the dial lands on a budget cut to a family service. There was the Pin the Tail on the Governor game, shell games for the kids and a fortune teller who apparently had a dark crystal ball and could only forecast bad outcomes.

It was a jocular way to make a serious point: California will suffer, advocates said, if the governor's proposed budget cuts to childcare programs and other family services become reality.

"Today is the start of the official (California) State Fair," event organizer Mary Ignatius said, "and we wanted to remind our leaders that the state budget is anything but fair."

Siobhan O'Neil drove down from Butte County, where she's the outreach coordinator for Valley Oak Children's Services. She said she's well aware that state budget cutters are staring down a $19 billion budget shortfall -- about 10 percent of the overall budget. She just doesn't think cutting is the only solution.

"We're asking the governor and the legislature to look at other revenue options," O'Neil said, ticking them off her fingers. "A tax on alcohol. We tax cigarettes, so why not alcohol? The vehicle license fee, the tax on oil companies. There are other options for revenues besides balancing the budget on the backs of children and families."

Janina Thompson of Fremont represents one of those families. She is on the waiting list for subsidized daycare, to enable her to have the time to work. Her son starts kindergarten in the fall, and if she can't use the after-school program, Thompson said, she could end up on unemployment. "I can't go back to work," she said. "The after-school program is $600 a month, and I don't have it."

That's a familiar story in Butte County, O'Neil said, where the poverty and unemployment rates are high -- and where, she said, she has seen these government programs make a big difference. "We have families who have gone from poverty to self-sufficiency," O'Neil said. "There's a stereotype that they all want a hand-out, and that's not true. I've seen so many success stories with people getting jobs, and taking care of kids and getting ahead."

The catch phrase in Sacramento these days is job creation, Ignatius said. "And cutting childcare means cutting people's ability to work," she said. "And there's the childcare provider jobs (that are threatened), as well. The governor said he wanted to focus on jobs, jobs, jobs -- but little did we know it meant cutting jobs, jobs, jobs."

There are about 200,000 children enrolled throughout the state in childcare programs, with another 200,000 kids on the waiting list, she said.

The "Un-Fair" protest was staged at a time when most California politicians are not in Sacramento. But the ones working on the budget are still in town, Ignatius pointed out. "The Big Five and the conference committee chairs are here," she said, "and those are the people we want to reach."

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