By Catherine Ho | LA Times
February 21, 2009 -- As her colleagues attended a budget-signing ceremony in Sacramento, state Assembly Speaker Karen Bass was a world away as she visited her alma mater in West Los Angeles on Friday morning to address a younger but no less demanding group.
Inside a music classroom at Hamilton High School, less than 36 hours after state legislators ended months of intense budget negotiations, she pressed headphones to her ears and bobbed her head, a bewildered half-smile creeping across her face.
"It's a whole new world," Bass said, handing the headphones back to senior Karla Subero, who had electronically arranged the tracks -- a process completely foreign to the highest-ranking Democrat in the Assembly.
Bass appeared relaxed and energetic, arriving in a bright blue blazer along with an entourage of press and staff who tailed her as she visited classrooms and chatted with students at the humanities magnet from which she graduated in 1971.
Students enthusiastically greeted Bass with cheers, applause and even a standing ovation inside the school auditorium, but they also had questions about budget cuts to education: If children are the future, why is education getting cut even one cent? How did California get to a point where it needs to slash its budget so severely? What do the cuts mean for students on their way to college?
Bass took the questions in stride, saying that although the budget includes "devastating" cuts to education, she hopes the federal stimulus bill will help cushion some of the blow.
"Unfortunately, we had to do devastating cuts to education because California was literally running out of money," she said to a packed auditorium of about 300 students. "I'm hoping our economic stimulus will help make the cuts not as devastating. But the reality is, it is going to hurt education overall."
She said the housing crisis in California -- coupled with taxpayers who no longer are contributing to the state at the same levels as before the stock market crash -- led to the current fiscal crisis in California. The only option was to cut everything, including education, which accounts for about 40% of the state budget, Bass said.
"Every area of our society had to pay, had to be cut," she said. "Every single person has to pay a little more and receive a little less from their government."
For college-bound students, this will mean paying more for college, and schools accepting fewer students, she said.
Bass said there's no guarantee California will not face another budget impasse. The budget was held up for three months as legislators waged partisan battles over raising taxes and approving deep cuts to education and healthcare that would lift the state out of a projected $42-billion deficit. It was finally approved early Thursday morning after Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) agreed to support the spending plan in exchange for a concession that would amend the way California conducts its primary system.
"Californians cannot rest assured that this won't happen again," she said. "Until we change the two-thirds requirement to pass the budget, it probably will happen again. The first order of business is to change the two-thirds requirement."
Had the budget been delayed any further, the state would have had to lay off 20,000 workers and halt 276 public works projects.
Still, Bass told reporters, "I don't think it's anything to celebrate . . . We did what we had to do."
Despite the somber tone in addressing the budget crisis, Bass was upbeat and drew cheers and loud whoops from students.
She recalled her time at Hamilton, during which she became involved in civil rights activism, and she encouraged students to get involved in their community.
"Being an activist on any level, getting people elected, whether or not you're old enough to vote. . . . That's the way we change the world."