The first ever Turlock Government Night drew elected officials from federal, state and local government to the same place at the same time to offer frank answers about budgets, projects and priorities.
The event, more than a year and a half in the making, filled Turlock’s War Memorial Thursday night. Members of the public jumped at the chance to ask politicians like U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Atwater), State Sen. Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres), and State Assemblyman Bill Berryhill (R-Ceres) face-to-face questions.
Turlock Government Night was the brainchild of Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa. Chiesa said he had the idea after a constituent approached him, frustrated with an inability to find an answer to a simple question of government. The state said to ask local government, local government said to ask federal government, and no one seemed to know the answer.
“I thought, why can't we sit down all the elected officials, all the representatives of Turlock, and talk about the issues that are important?” Chiesa said.
Chiesa said the event exceeded expectations, with civil discourse, honest answers, and, most importantly, a massive turnout of more than 300 attendees. The attendance was no surprise to Turlock Mayor John Lazar, though, who hopes the representatives will return next year.
“People are hungry for this sort of forum,” Lazar said. “Particularly with the austerity we’re facing as a government.”
The evening kicked off with the four main speakers – Denham, Cannella, Berryhill and Chiesa – offering a brief introduction. Denham’s opening statements, however, were a bit less brief than the others’, employing a PowerPoint presentation to discuss the federal budget and national debt.
“It’s a crisis,” Denham said. “It’s what I heard about most on the campaign trail,” he continued, saying the national debt came up more often than unemployment and water issues.
He went on to discuss the current, “unsustainable” budget, and discussed House Republicans’ commitment to cut $100 billion from the current year’s budget. He said he hopes to offer cuts for entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medical in next year’s budget, and to sell excess federal properties to save money.
“We will cut the size of government,” Denham said to cheers. “We have to get our country back.”
While the budget situation isn’t much better at the state level Cannella tried to point out a small positive.
“Compared to what Congressman Denham put up it doesn't seem that bad,” he said. “But it is pretty bad.”
Berryhill, in his own words tried to be “bold, vague, and elusive as possible” about what's happening in the state government. He didn’t paint a pretty picture of the state’s efforts to bridge a $26 billion shortfall in the current budget.
“It's tough in Sacramento right now,” Berryhill said. “I get emotional about it … I didn't go up there to slash education.”
Cannella touted his commitment to “get people back to work and keep people safe.” Most of his work is focused on the budget right now, he said, but through addressing the 20 percent unemployment rate in his district – among the highest in the nation – the state budget will benefit with new tax dollars.
“Ultimately we've got to turn this economy around to get you all back to work,” Cannella said.
Both Cannella and Berryhill said part of that turnaround would involve regulatory reform, simplifying California’s onerous, oftentimes self-conflicting statutes governing business. Berryhill attributed the regulations to “out-of-control bureaucrats.”
“It is really stifling our ability to create jobs,” Berryhill said. “Our entrepreneurialism is being shackled by them.”
Until the economy turns around, though, cuts will be necessary, both Cannella and Berryhill said. Both singled out pension reform as much-needed; state pensions currently represent a $500 billion unfunded liability.
In answering a question on higher-education cuts, Cannella said he would like to see higher education fully funded, but such a move would require renegotiating contracts with staff.
“Those have to go back to the table and be renegotiated,” Cannella said. “We're in a new time.”
Berryhill expressed regret about “tough decisions” in the current budget related to education. He did suggest budgetary changes to prevent such drastic shortfalls in the future, including pay-as-you-go budgeting, zero-base budgeting, and performance based budgeting.
Federal education funding drew audience queries as well, including five questions about Head Start preschool funding. Denham was asked how deep a cut the program could sustain, and where it rates on a priority scale.
“I don’t know,” Denham said after a long pause. “I don’t know how much is too much to cut on that one particular program.”
Denham said education was important to the economic recovery. But he did go on to advocate doing away with the Department of Education, requiring state and local governments to take up the onus of education.
Representatives also answered questions on immigration, high-speed rail, water use, redistricting – which all supported, eliminating redevelopment agencies – which all opposed –and even an Internet sales tax before ending the formal forum and breaking out into one-on-one Q&A sessions.
Carl Camp, a member of the Turlock Tea Party Patriots, said he was pleased with most of what he heard from the representatives. But almost more important than what was said was that the elected officials were in Turlock, accessible to the public.
“I like the fact we’re starting a dialogue,” Camp said, even though he wished there was more time for questions.
Turlocker Chris Kiriakou also enjoyed the event. He took comfort in the area’s representatives after seeing them up close.
“I thought that each of the representatives made their opinion known,” Kiriakou said. “… I think each of them will represent the City of Turlock and the surrounding environs in a really good way.”
To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail email@example.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.