When it comes to describing the true source of California’s current troubles, one of the late, great cartoonist Walt Kelly’s swamp-dwelling characters may have said it best: “We have met the enemy and he is us,” declared Pogo in 1971.
He could have been lamenting the irresponsible way we Californians have spent this state into a deep hole over the last 30 years.
Each depredation seemed laudable enough in its time – from passing mandatory prison sentencing laws by large margins to okaying virtually all bond issues proposed on statewide ballots.
Here’s some of the bleak picture:
• California – once the paragon of smooth roads – now has the second worst pavement conditions in America, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Road Information Program. Its latest report says this state spends $11 billion a year less than what’s needed to maintain good roads.
• State prisons are so overcrowded courts repeatedly find they violate constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. As many as 40,000 prisoners may have to be released in the next year.
• California’s public university systems have unprecedented numbers of qualified applicants for admission at the same time they’re reducing student slots. They’ll turn away about 150,000 qualified people this year. This amounts to all but abandoning the state’s 50-year-old master plan for higher education.
•California now has about $89 billion in long-term bond debt, with more probably on the way. Merely making payments on what we owe costs about $10 billion a year, money that can’t go to schools, parks, or anything but debt service.
It’s easy to blame “dysfunctional” state government for all this and more. But things are not so simple. Our system of government didn’t get us into our current $20 billion deficit hole, nor did the fact the current Legislature works full-time.
It was us. We did it. We the voters elected lawmakers and governors who pushed programs and okayed public employee union contracts and pensions that now have us strapped. We the voters changed state government’s priorities by mandating high levels of public school spending. We the voters believed get-tough-on-crime rhetoric and passed things like the “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” law. We the voters okayed bond issues for everything from park expansions to high-speed rail (okay, the $9.9 billion in bonds for that project have not yet been sold). We the voters passed initiatives demanding higher water quality and coastal protection and mass transit. We the voters reduced property taxes at the same time we demanded more public services. We thought we could do all these laudable things without providing new tax dollars to pay for all we wanted.
Some opportunistic politicians and big business lobbyists like to blame today’s situation on greenhouse gas cuts authorized by the 2006 AB 32, which requires emissions be reduced 15 percent by 2020. But no AB 32 tactic has yet taken effect, so how can that law be the culprit?
And yet, we the voters can also pull the state out of its current mess. Or we could if presented with candidates for high office willing to speak truth to today’s very tough issues.
Here are some realities: California can’t repair roads and water infrastructure without spending more money. But gas taxes and gas prices are already so high they cut some people’s mobility. California colleges can’t take more students without spending more money. Yet, tuition and fees will already be far higher than ever next fall. California must pay the interest on its current debt and bonds already okayed but not yet sold, and voters this year will be asked to increase that debt by at least $11 billion for water projects alone. Meanwhile, no one even contemplates an interest-free pay-as-you-go system for building anything.
Where could all the needed money come from? One source might be the bloated prison budget, now at more than $8 billion a year, or about one-tenth of overall state spending. Releasing aged and/or non-violent convicts is one way to start. Making three-strikes apply only to violent crimes is another. But voters have not okayed these things, and might never. So we want to be tough on crime, but not pay for it.
Another source might be somehow reducing pensions. But that would be an illegal bait-and-switch for most present government workers and retirees, whose payments are guaranteed by contracts approved by folks we elected. We could raise taxes, but no one thinks that’s a good idea amid record high unemployment.
We want government services galore, yet every poll shows the vast majority of us don’t want new levies to pay for them.
Which leaves us with choices. We – not our politicians – put ourselves into this spot. Getting out will require sacrifices, but no politician now seeking high office has asked for any, except from state employees and the powerless, including battered women. Which will leave us stuck in this situation until our ideas and presumptions become more realistic.
­­­Contact Tom Elias