Women’s commission slammed in state budget

The ultimate fate of the California Commission on the Status of Women, a nationally known agency and the first of its kind, is not known. But one thing is certain: It is being whittled away.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s veto package delivered severe cuts to the commission, a groundbreaking advocate for gender advocacy in the state’s policymaking process.

The enacted budget reduces the commission’s already-cut, $450,000 funding by more than 40 percent. No one at the commission was available to comment as to whether the reduction constitutes a fatal blow or a new diminished incarnation for the agency.

Established in 1965 under Gov. Pat Brown and signed into statute in 1971 by Gov. Ronald Reagan, this nonpartisan body played a historic role helping outlaw sex discrimination in employment in California.

It advises the Legislature and governor on gender policy, lobbies women’s groups before the California Legislature, and educates the public on gender-related legislation.

The Legislative Analyst Office, the Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal adviser, has in recent years recommended the commission’s elimination in light of the state’s fiscal constraints. The LAO’s analysis of the 2010-11 budget suggests women’s issues are better served by money spent directly in various policy areas.

Brown’s January budget proposal originally allotted the commission $476,000 despite the LAO’s recommendations. But as the budget battle continued, the commission was added to the list of spending cut casualties proposed in the governor’s May Revision.

When faced with elimination, 65 organizations signed on to a letter defending the continuing need for the commission’s existence.

The letter cites the enduring wage gap, how women make up the majority of the state’s poor and uninsured, and the commission’s roles in providing a voice to groups with the least access to state government and services, like those with limited English language ability and incarcerated women.

Though saved by the Legislature, the final word from Brown was a reduction of $200,000 that may leave the commission operable for only half the fiscal year, adding:
“While the statutory goals of the commission are worthy, I continue to believe there are formal and informal venues for policy development and advocacy that don’t require General Fund expenditure,” the LAO said.

But Mary Wiberg, the commission’s executive director, said the commission is the only entity dedicated to providing a comprehensive perspective on women’s issues. The commission’s 2011-12 policy agenda advises on issues as disparate as human trafficking, pregnant inmates, and transgender rights.

“Other agencies don’t look at the whole picture,” she argued, “When we’re not in state government the gender lens will be missing.”
She adds that bipartisan legislative bodies such as the Women’s Caucus are not as free to apply pressure on controversial issues, and that individual legislators and agencies do not have the time to focus on issues solely affecting women.

As stated in the Women’s Foundation’s letter of support of the commission, “While we believe it is never the intent to create policy that will have a negative impact on women and girls, without adequate gender analysis it is often the unintended outcome. In a state where women remain underrepresented, clear-sighted gender analysis is critical — and the commission plays a major role in this task.”

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