BY JIM MILLER
SACRAMENTO BUREAU
jmiller@pe.com

Published: 11 May 2012 10:04 PM

Michael Fine, Riverside Unified School District’s deputy superintendent for business services, can tick off the hard numbers of what four years of recession-era state budgets have meant for his 42,000-student district.

The district has lost $110 million and confronts an annual $20 million gap between revenue and spending. The school year, which spanned 180 instructional days before the recession, is now 176 days.

There are 187 fewer teachers and other certificated personnel, an 8 percent reduction, and all staff has had at least five days of furloughs. Class sizes have gone from 20 students to 26 in kindergarten through third grade, he said.

“We have gone so far the wrong way on this, in my opinion,” Fine said.

California’s economic struggles have lasted longer than many officials expected. In Sacramento, the budget tumult of recent years has had another result: widely differing interpretations of the statewide impact of the downturn’s toll on state programs used by tens of millions.

Both parties agree that cuts have been made. But Democrats and Republicans are billions of dollars apart in their assessments of how much the state has reduced actual spending.

A thicket of fund shifts, borrowing, payment deferrals and fluctuating federal aid that have defined recent budgets hamper comparisons of spending changes from one year to the next.

“There have been cuts, no doubt,” said deputy legislative analyst Jason Sisney of the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office. “The truth is it’s almost impossible to track spending apples to apples. It really just shows how complicated the budget has become.”

The debate will continue after Gov. Jerry Brown releases a revised version of his January budget plan Monday that is likely to project a significantly larger deficit through June 2013.

And in the coming months, Brown, fellow Democrats and allied groups will try to persuade voters weary of the state’s budget problems that they should approve temporary sales and income taxes to help schools and other state programs, or else face midyear trigger cuts.

LAWMAKERS DIFFER

State Sen. Bill Emmerson, R-Hemet, the top Republican on the Senate budget panel, said Democrats exaggerate the scope of spending reductions to justify a need for more revenue.

Many so-called cuts, Emmerson said, have actually been backfilled by money from other state funds, the federal government, or by money from deferring payments to schools, among other steps. Some have been blocked by the courts or otherwise never took effect.

“When my Democratic colleagues talk about the general fund being reduced by $40 billion, those aren’t the numbers I see,” Emmerson said. “If you look at total general fund spending, that has not decreased. If you look at specific programs, that has ratcheted down.”

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