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The New California Adventure 

Schwarzenegger budget policies are turning small cities and rural counties into post-apocalypse theme parks

Wednesday, Jun 9 2004
Imagine California as the sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland alluded to in such fantasies as Terminator, Blade Runner, Road Warrior, and Water World ...

The air is thick with the smoke of burning buildings; the oily, wet streets are scattered with blackened wreckage. Once a promised land, much of California has become a nightmare. Law enforcement budgets are slashed to the point where county sheriffs insist, "If they call and the dispatcher says, 'We don't have anyone here,' you know they're not lying. People are going to have to be more cautious and secure their property." Towns become so impoverished they simply cease to exist. Libraries refrain from buying books, having spent the past two decades trimming hours to the point where, within one generation, most Californians just stop going; counties begin closing them down by the dozen. Nursing hospitals are shut for lack of money. Kids lose their swimming pools and other recreation places and roam the streets looking for trouble.

Except for the part about the oily streets, thick air, and blackened wreckage, this scenario is real, thanks to budget problems that have already slashed state money for local government and to Gov. Schwarzenegger's proposal to siphon another $1.3 billion in property taxes from cities and counties. Democratic challenges to Schwarzenegger, raised in negotiations this week, merely nibble around the edges of the central tenets of his budget proposal: no tax increases, deep spending cuts, and creative financing that will make things worse in the future. California's poorer counties and towns, many of them already near bankruptcy, have spent the past two weeks announcing wholesale service cuts.

Yet somehow the governor remains extraordinarily popular.

The aforementioned sheriff, of Trinity County, told the Redding Record Searchlight last week that citizens should stop counting on law enforcement for protection. He'd just announced that deputy patrols would be halved.

And Gov. Schwarzenegger's approval ratings hovered at 60 percent.

Small California towns such as Farmersville, in Tulare County, and Parlier, in Fresno County, are so strapped by recent cuts they could be forced to disband, according to a recent story in the Sacramento Bee. Tehama County just closed its nursing home. And most everybody's given up on libraries: Los Angeles County has considered closing 16 libraries this year to meet state budget cuts.

But the governor entered budget negotiations last week still heralded as a brilliant phenomenon in the world of public policy.

In the universe we've known so far, the concepts of statewide catastrophe and a wildly popular governor have been mutually exclusive. Could something special and futuristic be happening in California?

It is.

California is turning into a real-life version of Terminator II: Judgment Day. By balancing a massively out-of-whack state budget on the backs of poorer cities and counties, our governor is turning these communities into post-apocalypse fantasylands, but he's not doing it out of spite. He's doing it because he knows, in the end, enduring post-apocalyptic poverty is the market-based way -- indeed, the only real way -- to help them.

Soon, California's less-well-off counties will be so astonishingly destitute and ravaged that they might be marketed as reality tours for the privileged. Within months, the tourist dollars will start rolling in just as they did with Schwarzenegger's other real-life entertainment venture, Planet Hollywood, and the once-poor parts of California will become well-off and, perhaps, more important and self-sufficient.

Living in San Francisco, host to the Pacific Rim's massive, local-tax-revenue-producing financial hub, it's easy to lose sight of the level of desperation other California communities have suffered during California's quarter-century of decaying government finance. Sure, Gavin Newsom's new, trimmer budget is getting plenty of press. But the city's budget had become so bloated during the previous eight years that this mayor is able to save scads of money merely by making city government efficient again. That's not true in much of the rest of the state, where local agencies are slashing the kinds of services commonly considered a civilization baseline.

There's a reason Californians have tolerated a near sci-fi version of governance, and it has to do with storytelling -- a field in which our Hollywood governor excels.

Since Proposition 13 set state finances permanently askew in 1978, the state has met budget shortfalls by shifting money from local government to the state. Some offended constituencies have held ground via budgeting shell games, initiative-based-bond borrowing, and ballot propositions that permanently shave off portions of the state budget for themselves. The result is ever-increasing levels of state debt service, and an ever-shrinking portion of state finances left over for the programs that lack legislators or budget-earmarking ballot propositions to call their own.

After a quarter-century, statehouse newspaper and television correspondents consider the substance of this process to be old hat. What's interesting to them is the statehouse shouting match that commences every time the annual budget has to be passed. For a couple of months every year, horse-race-type stories emanating from Sacramento get Californians riveted: Who'll blink first, Republicans or Democrats? Will they meet the deadline? Will the government have to shut down? Or not? Listen to them yell and swear: Gosh, they're so dysfunctional.

To much of the rest of the state, the story of state financial irresponsibility is less exciting: Because state aid is consistently cut and local funds constantly shifted to state coffers, every year the budgets for sheriff's departments, libraries, and street maintenance are cut a bit more. And each year, the state goes a little further into hidden debt, which will eventually be paid for by further service cuts and more covert raids on local government treasurers. A gradual, quarter-century-long worsening of government function has reached intolerable levels -- without anybody really seeming to notice.

Aware that the news media cover state government in a plot-driven, almost cinematic fashion, Schwarzenegger tweaked the storyline this year. He cut side deals with the most powerful among them, leaving little guys -- including poor counties and towns -- to pick after the crumbs. The governor's scheme includes so much hidden borrowing, and so many short-term fixes, that it will cause future deficits to balloon, according to nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hall, who predicted "major short-term fiscal problems" for California's poorer local governments. At the same time, Arnold's deal-making narrative has clearly sold well with California voters, who support him with some of the highest poll numbers in state history.

San Francisco Assemblyman Mark Leno, who calls Schwarzenegger "masterful" in his ability to game state Democrats, suggests the storyline the governor has crafted for California is terrible in terms of governance. "It makes sense only if your only goal is to balance this year's budget and next year's budget without looking like you've raised a tax," Leno said. "If that's his sole goal, he's succeeded. But what a ridiculous goal."

Clearly, Mark Leno has never been a Hollywood sci-fi action hero. Otherwise, he'd understand the value of taking old plot devices and making them seem new, no matter how derivative they actually are. And he'd understand the cinematic possibilities of a place like Tehama County.

About halfway between San Francisco and the Oregon border there is a small, rural town known for a unique weather pattern that often makes it hotter than Death Valley in the summer, and for the cool, deep, swift, quarter-mile-wide river flowing through its center. Given this combination, city fathers and mothers years ago constructed an Olympic-sized swimming pool in a park along the river, giving kids something to do summers while keeping them out of the deadly Sacramento River. On a typical day, 300 kids from the tiny town of Red Bluff go to the pool. But when I visited my parents, who live a block away, on this Memorial Day weekend, the pool was dry, the gates locked.

"Basically, due to the state budget crisis, they kind of informed us that our portion of budget cuts was $171,000, and our city manager went to each department, saying we had to cut somewhere," says Ron Gibbs, Red Bluff's parks and recreation director. So Gibbs decided to shut the pool for the month of June. A citizens group formed to raise money to expand the hours, which has, he says, helped. The pool now is set to open in mid-June, though still sans swimming lessons and other programs.

"We're hitting local businesses and people with so many fundraisers, you can't go downtown without running into three or four banners or collection cans," Gibbs says. "Tehama County is taking quite a big hit. They're millions of dollars in debt. They're really struggling. Their offices are right across the street, so we can see it. They're closing the nursing hospital -- everybody's looking at what they can do with the least amount of repercussions. There's no easy way out."

This is where Gibbs and other naysayers have it all wrong. With the pool closed, disenfranchised youth will start roaming Tehama County. Perhaps some of their drowned bodies might be found washed up along the shore. In Trinity County, just to the north, where the sheriff has said deputies won't answer calls, citizens might take the law into their own hands. Vigilantes could start patrolling the streets, guided by passion, untroubled by fear. Through the haze a figure -- clothed in black leather, face hatched with scars -- could emerge. He'd be a dangerous, serious figure, but deep in his soul kindness would wait to be awakened; enemies would be available to kill; humankind would exist, just to be saved. Behold the small-town terminator.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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