If the subject is the state budget, you know what follows: What will be cut this time?
This has been an annual discussion ever since California's economy imploded and tax revenues dried up.
It was the central topic of state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier's town hall meeting in Concord last week, where he gave a primer on the arcane process by which Sacramento balances income and outflow.
He talked about Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget for 2012-13, his planned cuts, projected revenues, assumed tax hikes, triggered cuts if the taxes do not pass, and the many meetings that will take place before anything is approved.
Numbers piled upon numbers until he acknowledged: "I see a few glassy eyes out there."
The 80 or so people in the City Council Chamber listened politely enough, but that wasn't the main reason many of them were there. They came to voice their concerns over what is at risk in the era of austerity.
Taking turns at the microphone for more than an hour, they expressed fears for everything from in-home support services to government-funded child care, mental health, education, libraries, medical coverage and animal control.
They could have been any group, in any locale, on any night, DeSaulnier said. He hosts town hall meetings throughout his district, and there is only one common denominator among constituents' pleas.
"Don't cut the thing that we like," he said. "If there's something people care
An older woman who requires in-home support told the senator: "We need IHSS. It's cheaper to care for people in the home. It costs $10,000 a month to put them in a nursing home, and they die quicker. Maybe that's what the government wants -- all of us dead."
A child care advocate said: "The proposed budget is not very favorable for keeping our families safe. You're not only harming the families and their efforts to find employment if they have no child care but the children themselves."
An elderly man asked about budget cuts that will diminish seniors' safety net.
"What are they doing to protect that?" he asked.
A woman lamented lost funding for libraries, a young man talked about his difficulty in accessing mental health care and a woman in a walker said that after a lifetime of paying taxes, now that she needs public health services they are less available than ever.
DeSaulnier responded to each of the assorted concerns, noting after one that lawmakers don't always fully appreciate the impacts of their budget cuts.
"That's one of the reasons we do these public outreaches," he said. "Sometimes they're just anecdotal stories, but they're helpful to people like me to understand the consequences."
He believes government is often too eager to spend money when it has it -- he cited the tech boom during Gray Davis' administration -- and too quick to cut programs when the budget must be squeezed.
"I think we have to be really careful about all the changes we're making in health and human services," he said. "You don't just eliminate whole programs, knowing that when the economy gets going you'll have to start them up again."
On the whole, he appreciates the way the governor arrived at his budget proposal.
"Gov. Brown needs to be complimented for dealing with reality. We're not just going to keep shining on, moving money around and say we balanced it."
We'll all support the budget. As long he doesn't cut anything we care about.
Contact Tom Barnidge at, email@example.com.