No. 1: State budget impact: Lack of state cash keeps hitting home

San Luis Obispo County’s biggest single industry — government — is expected to be hit for the third year in a row, as the No. 1 local story of 2009 promises to be on the list again come next December.

It is estimated that government on all levels — State Parks, highway workers, schools, colleges, and even cities and the county — is responsible for between 25 and 35 percent of the jobs in the county. Its percentage of good-paying middle- and upper-middle-income jobs is even higher.

California’s budget crisis has already caused many state workers to see their pay cut 15 percent from forced furloughs. The crisis has led teachers and parents to protest school employee layoffs and led disabled students to plead for their program at Cuesta College board meetings.

The state Legislative Analyst’s Office has estimated the budget numbers will continue to get worse, according to The Sacramento Bee.

The nonpartisan office reports there will be an estimated $6.3 billion shortfall in the budget this year and an estimated $14.4 billion shortfall in the fiscal year starting in July.

That follows two years of multibillion-dollar shortfalls.

Where it hits gets complicated.

The state Legislature raided the fund for returned cans and bottles, for example, causing recycling centers across the state, including at least one in this county, to close. That left can collectors in the lurch.

Funds have been cut in programs that serve elderly shut-ins and the uninsured. Fees were raised from $20 to $26 a unit at Cuesta College and all community colleges. Freshmen entering Cal Poly in the fall can expect to pay at least 30 percent more in fees than those charged to freshmen in 2009.

There are many other ways the state budget becomes real to local residents. Funding helps pay to keep bathrooms at state parks clean, supports repair and construction of state highways, and provides staff so property re-assessments can be done by the county Assessor’s Office and transcripts can be processed at Cal Poly.

Government workers also spend money.

“It is the backbone of this place, really,” said Dave Garth, president of the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce. “The local government class is a big part of our economy.”

While Garth and a host of statewide economists say the economy will start to turn around in 2010, there is a delay in how it shows up in state coffers in the form of collected income taxes.

County schools Superintendent Julian Crocker is not sure when schools will recover.

The schools, serving approximately 34,000 students from kindergarten through 12th grade, got $41 million less from the state this year, but part of that ($10.3 million) was made up with a one-time boost of federal stimulus money.

Crocker said people think the schools are fine because most see them in a drive-by sort of way: they hear bells go off and see children playing on playgrounds.

“Class sizes are still huge — they are in the high 20s and low 30s now,” he said, comparing it to when there was state money to reduce class sizes. “There are no specialists anymore. It has changed.”