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Jewish Journal

We’re in the Money

by Anita Chabria

August 16, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Despite a tough economic year that prompted more than $550 million in line-item vetoes by Governor Gray Davis, the new California state budget allocates almost $10 million dollars to Jewish organizations.

With a range of programs from pediatric immunizations to materials for community colleges suffering last-minute cuts by the executive office, even political insiders say they are surprised by the success of Jewish-backed causes when it came to securing funds.

"I'm sort of amazed, frankly," says Howard Welinsky, a board member of the Jewish Public Affairs Committee, the political affairs arm of The Jewish Federation. "I'm amazed that the legislature and the governor allowed so many of these requests when so many other areas of funding got cut. The Jewish community did pretty well."

The $103.3 billion dollar budget approved by Davis on July 27 is a nod to the worsening condition of the state's economy -- with a decrease in spending of 1.7 percent, or $1.5 billion less than last year. Throughout his summary of vetoes, Davis repeatedly said that California is heading into a difficult year "with its softening economy and substantial revenue decreases." But despite that bleak outlook, more than a half-dozen Jewish projects survived the governor's "blue-pencil," or 11th-hour vetoing.

The Jewish community's biggest budget winner -- as usual -- was the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, which received about $7 million, equal to their funding in last year's budget.

Four million of that will be used to continue diversity training for law enforcement officers and educators. The remaining $3 million will help create a new exhibit for fifth and sixth-grade children that explores "what it felt like to arrive in America through the eyes of celebrities such as Billy Crystal, Maya Angelou, and Carlos Santana," says Rabbi Meyer May, executive director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Other recipients of state funds include the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, which received $750,000 towards the $70 million dollar renovation of its Pacific Heights building. The Jewish Museum San Francisco also received $750,000, money -- which will be used to finish a new facility near Yerba Buena Gardens in the downtown area. The Breed Street Shul, Los Angeles' oldest synagogue and a historic landmark, received $500,000 for preservation and expansion of community services in its Boyle Heights neighborhood. The Skirball Cultural Center received $400,000 towards construction of a new exhibition hall. San Francisco Jewish Vocational Services (SFJVS), a Federation beneficiary agency, received $200,000 for a new training and employment center for émigrés in the downtown area. YouTHink, an educational program for public schools, scored $250,000 to expand its curriculum of arts projects that inspire discussions of current issues among children.

Political insiders credit the Jewish community's success to a combination of savvy political lobbying and a roster of projects with strong track records and broad social appeal.

"The [Jewish] programs are very well run and designed properly so that they are cost effective," says Terri Smooke, special assistant to Davis. "And when the governor was evaluating these programs, he was able to look at the return on the dollar." Smooke adds that the programs that received funding appealed to legislators because they serve the public at large, even though they "incubated in the Jewish community."

That point may be proved by the reduced grant received by the Minority AIDS Project. An official at that agency said the organization was not even aware that it had applied for funding until after the final budget was approved, and that they are currently "investigating" how the funding came about.

But in a year that saw $98 million in last-minute cuts for community colleges -- undeniably a broad appeal service -- it took more than a worthy cause or a well-run program to ensure the state's financial blessing.

As much as the projects themselves, credit for the funding is also given to aggressive and well-organized lobbying efforts in Sacramento. Both The Wiesenthal Center and The Jewish Federation, which backed the grants for the SFJVS and the youTHink program, use the same representative, Cliff Berg of Governmental Advocates, a lobbyist that May describes as "extraordinary."

"He knows how the system works, and he knows all the players, and that, in and of itself, is an accomplishment considering how quickly those players change now due to term limits," says Michael Hirschfeld, Executive Director of The Jewish Federations Community Relations Committee.

Despite receiving funding for both of its requests, Hirschfeld says this was a tough year for lobbying, and that many programs received less than the requested amount. He cites youTHink as an example -- the program was given $1 million in last year's budget, but had to settle for a quarter of that this year. The Skirball also fell victim to lower funding, receiving only $400,000 instead of the $500,000 originally slated before Davis' cuts.

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