Cuts Eyed In California Firefighting Budget In the wake of California's worsening budget disaster, one of the areas identified for reductions is firefighting. But how can the state afford to scale back its effort to battle wildfires with so many lives and so much property at stake?
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Cuts Eyed In California Firefighting Budget

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Cuts Eyed In California Firefighting Budget

Cuts Eyed In California Firefighting Budget

Cuts Eyed In California Firefighting Budget

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In the wake of California's worsening budget disaster, one of the areas identified for reductions is firefighting. But how can the state afford to scale back its effort to battle wildfires with so many lives and so much property at stake?

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was in Washington D.C. today trying to get more federal dollars for California. The defeat of those ballot measures was a huge political loss for him and now, as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the governor appears ready to do what the voters clearly want.

CARRIE KAHN: Schwarzenegger says he tried to find ways to balance the state's $21 billion shortfall without having to make drastic cuts to critical state services.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (California): But now we have - there's no other choice. I think that the message was clear from the people - go all out and make those cuts and live within your means.

KAHN: The governor says he heard voters say, we're angry. We hired you to fix this, don't ask us to do it.

Gov. SCHWARZENEGGER: And sure don't come to us for more money. But we have to go and sell off our motorcycles, and our boats and our cars, second cars. And shrink, and to have yard sales and garage sales in order to make ends meet. You do the same thing.

KAHN: But Schwarzenegger says Californians may not be prepared for the size of cuts that will be necessary. It's not the first time voters have heard such grave predictions.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Unidentified Man: Sacramento's budget mess has already forced departments to lay off firefighters and paramedics. And it could get even worse.

KAHN: Ads like these featuring firefighters, teachers and law enforcement officials ran for months in the lead up to yesterday's special election. Today, officials up and down the state were reacting to that worst case scenario.

Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Los Angeles): Unfortunately, we all know what's coming.

KAHN: Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa stood in front of a downtown fire station this morning urging state lawmakers not to make more cuts to public safety.

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: We know that the state will now try to balance its books on the backs of cities, counties and school districts.

KAHN: The Los Angeles school district, the second largest in the nation, is preparing to make massive cuts. A grim-faced superintendent Ramon Cortines says he'll have to trim another $130 million from his budget by this summer, and that's on top of several thousand teacher layoffs he's already announced.

Mr. RAMON CORTINES (Superintendent, Los Angeles Unified School District): There are a fewer assistant principals. There are a fewer support services at the schools. And there is also an increase in class size. I'm not pleased with many of the recommendations I have made.

KAHN: And in drought-plagued California there's a dire warning about cuts to the state's fire agency. It could lose up to 2,000 firefighters.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

KAHN: In the recent Santa Barbara wildfire, which was just put out yesterday, after burning for nearly two weeks, state firefighters made up half the force. Under the new doomsday cuts, the state may not have enough money to wage these kinds of battles against future wildfires. Then there are the possible cuts to the prisons. Nonviolent prisoners may be released or transferred to local jails. But those who campaigned against yesterday's ballot measures say the dire predictions are being exaggerated. Jon Coupal is with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

Mr. JON COUPAL (Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association): People are not looking for government to slash and burn essential services. I think they look at that - those threats and say, look, if a family loses a third of their income, they don't stop buying food, they get rid of their HBO, not the other way around.

KAHN: Whatever the cuts are, they'll have to happen soon. Faced with declining revenues, California may have trouble paying its bills as early as July.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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