Illustration by Bela Messex

In light of the federal government’s last-minute budget compromise, many Santa Cruzans are concerned that the California state congress is going in the same direction — toward a budget stalemate.

The Santa Cruz Democratic Party hosted a forum to discuss California’s budgetary problems on April 13 in the Police Deparment Community Room.

At the forum, community members were able to engage with a pannel comprising Santa Cruz mayor Ryan Coonerty, who led the forum and county treasurer Fred Keeley.

Cynthia Matthews, city of Santa Cruz chamber of commerce board member, acted as moderator.

The majority of the topics addressed involved proposals to balance the state budget and encourage compromise in California’s legislature.

“We are all feeling the rotten economy magnified by the state budget crisis,” Matthews said. “There aren’t quick fixes and easy solutions.”

Keeley proposed two major changes that would help resolve tensions in the state legislature and accelerate the budget planning processes: open primaries and public redistricting.

These proposals would allow for greater inclusion of political moderates, Keeley said. Currently, in the state of California 20.4 percent of voters are registered as having “no party preference,” a 5 percent increase since 2003.

Keeley said the growth of the middle gives Democrats “a negotiating partner who can give and take” and “doesn’t laugh, but listens.”

Diane Le, a fourth-year politics major and president of College Democrats at UCSC who was at the forum, was intrigued by open primaries.

“Open primaries are a really interesting idea because it brings forth a more moderate source for candidates to go to, so Democrats aren’t completely leaning on the left or Republicans leaning on the right,” Le said.

Some, however, oppose Keeley’s other proposal — public redistricting — because of the possible implications for the Democratic Party.

Le said that as a representative of the Democratic Party, she did not agree with the idea of public redistricting.

“[Democrats] are the party in power right now, and letting us draw the lines keeps the politicians where they are,” Le said.

Public redistricting, some people — including Le —
believe, would threaten the power balance that currently favors the Democratic Party because it would allow district lines to be drawn by the people, and could result in a change in legislature seats.

Keeley saw the fear of losing power in the legislature as unfounded.

“There’s not a shred of evidence that [public redistricting] will hurt Democrats,” Keeley said. “These are the same voters who elected Jerry Brown governor, who elected Barbara Boxer to another term in the Senate last year, who said no to Meg Whitman, who said no to Carly Fiorina, [and] who said no to repealing the California climate change law.”

While Keeley focused on the state level, Coonerty stressed the importance of maintaining a balanced city budget and the relationship between state and local power.

“[The city and its residents are having] a much more honest conversation than Sacramento is having with the state of California,” Coonerty said. “We simply say, ‘We cannot provide you with all these services that we once did, and we have to raise taxes,’ but that’s what it takes to balance our budget.”

Santa Cruz’s general fund has dropped from over $70 million to $55 million. As part of the city’s pledge for a balanced budget, it has reduced social service programs by 48 percent in the past two years, Coonerty said. The city also raised taxes four out of the last five times it presented proposed tax increases to the community.

Coonerty said it “hurt” to make such decisions but that they were fiscally responsible.

Like Coonerty, Keeley reiterated throughout the night that the solution to the California budget crisis lies in “targeted cutting and temporary tax increases.”

The speakers stressed the importance of including political moderates in the discussion, especially with the necessary two-thirds majority vote needed to pass a budget.

“California has a democracy problem,” Keeley said. “We have set a game where it is impossible to win.”