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California Budget Crisis Diaries: Unhappy Californians, weary budget analysts

California’s weather isn’t the only bizarre phenomenon in the state. We’ve gone from doom and gloom (and tornado warnings) to sunshine in a matter of a week. Likewise, emotions run the gamut among Californians, with regard to the state’s budget woes.

Higher education leaders are increasingly optimistic, while students remain skeptical. Budget analysts are indifferent, while state residents are, in large numbers, disappointed and discouraged. Californians are weighing in at every extreme.

Here’s your Thursday California Budget Crisis diary.

Optimism at CSUs: The California State University system is intent on increasing graduation rates despite the massive budget cuts its 23 campuses have endured.

According to The Los Angeles Times, the Board of Trustees unveiled an “ambitious initiative” Wednesday detailing its goals for the school system.

“The university is setting a goal of boosting its six-year graduation rate by 8 percent by 2016, bringing it to 54 percent, in line with the top national averages at similar institutions. University leaders say they hope to raise graduation rates for underrepresented minority students by 10 percent, cutting in half what has been a thorny achievement gap in degree completion compared with white students.”

But the plan isn’t unique to CSU schools. According to the Times, it is “part of a nationwide project by a consortium of public university leaders.”

The CSU system is faced with a budget reduction of $564 million and 40,000 fewer students next school year.

That’s unnecessary, Governor: California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office isn’t sold on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s spending plan.

According to The New York Times, a report released Tuesday by the state’s LAO said the governor’s plan included “ill-conceived measures that would do serious harm to the budget process.”

What is the LAO referring to? In particular, to Schwarzenegger’s plan to “spend more money on higher education than on prisons,” according to the Times.

In his State of the State address, Schwarzenegger said California spent 10 percent of its general fund on prisons compared to 6 percent on higher education - he’s proposing a ballot that would prohibit the amount of spending on prisons to be more than higher education. But the idea doesn’t really work, according to the LAO.

“The plan was hailed by higher-education officials as a long-overdue lifeline but denounced as a threat to public safety by the union for corrections officers. Matthew Cate, secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, stood by the plan in an interview on Wednesday.

The report said Mr. Schwarzenegger’s proposal ‘inappropriately pits two program areas against each other’ and ‘implicitly suggests there is a linkage of crucial budgetary significance’ between them.”

Green light on traffic cams: Although the LAO scrutinizes Schwarzenegger’s prisons-higher education spending plan, it is backing up his plan to up the ante on traffic cameras in an effort to raise money.

According to The San Jose Mercury News, the LAO “concluded it’s an idea worth pursuing.”

“‘It merits legislative consideration,’ wrote analyst Drew Soderborg, saying Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘proposal would provide local governments with an additional option to further improve traffic safety while potentially providing a fiscal benefit to the state and local governments.’

The report is critical to those backing the governor’s plan. It has received mixed reviews from traffic engineers, police officers and motorists, mostly because it’s seen as a way to raise cash, not necessarily to improve safety. But the LAO zeroed in on safety benefits, saying other areas that use cameras for speed enforcement have seen a significant drop in crashes - from a 45 percent decline in England, to 40 percent in Paradise Valley, Ariz., to 20 percent in Norway. Now, with the LAO’s backing, legislation will likely be introduced this year in Sacramento to approve using cameras to catch speeders.”

But his plan wouldn’t just be limited to intersections with traffic lights. According to the Mercury News, the plan could include “school zones and on residential streets with speed limits of 25-30 mph.”

Unhappy Californians: Californians are in a foul mood, with three-quarters of adults believing the state is on the wrong course, according to a poll released Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California.

The poll found that 74 percent of Californians believe the state is headed in the wrong direction, compared to 19 percent who said it’s doing OK.

The high level of pessimism is reflected in people’s view of the state budget. California is facing a $20 billion shortfall through June 2011.

Two in three Californians believe the governor and Legislature will not be able to cooperate in the coming year, the highest level since the nonpartisan institute began asking the question in 2006.

The negative perception is even higher at 72 percent among Republicans. The Legislature rarely makes its June 15 deadline to pass a budget, and last year’s fiscal crisis forced the state to issue IOUs for only the second time since the Great Depression.

Student opinion: Closing out this CBCD entry is a student opinion piece from CSU Chico’s The Orion.

The paper’s opinion editor Don Bunce chimed in on the governor’s wish to get funding from the federal government.

Bunce writes that if Schwarzenegger’s $6.9 billion wish list isn’t fulfilled, higher education will be on the “chopping block.”

“I’m reminded of a cartoon I once saw, in which a professor was doing a multi-step math problem on the board and in the middle of the steps to the solution was the phrase ‘and then a miracle happens.’ That seems to be Schwarzenegger’s theory.

‘California is not Washington,’ Schwarzenegger said at a news conference Jan. 8. ‘We don’t have the luxury of printing money or running trillion-dollar deficits.’

That’s true. But expecting the federal government to simply cut us a check isn’t a solution either.

If the check for $6.9 billion doesn’t come in, what exactly would happen?”

Bunce goes on to write that he’s no “math whiz” but students should “get ready for more fee increases and budget cuts, folks.”

Associated Press writer Judy Lin contributed to this report. Hoa Quach is the political editor for the San Diego News Network. Follow her on Twitter or add her on Facebook.