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Davis, California

Monday, October 18, 2021

Column: Too many Santas

So a state budget is passed and signed into law, but California’s future is no brighter.

It’s commonplace now for observers to report that our government is no longer operational.

“The enactment of a new state budget, 100 days after the onset of the fiscal year, is further evidence, if we needed any, of our civic dysfunction,” Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters recently wrote. “It’s a pastiche of gimmicks and assumptions that probably will fall apart before the next governor takes office in January.”

Perhaps this reality explains why the budget was passed with so little fanfare. I recall the mood in Sacramento two years ago, when it was big news every morning that the budget was one more day overdue, and what a crisis everyone said we faced.

This year, all of a sudden, a budget vote falls out of the sky and with little delay everybody surrenders. Legislators are out of town one day, they hurriedly trudge back into the capital the next and spend all night in session to finish by the next morning.

Gov. Schwarzenegger signed the bill with bland statements like “politics is the art of compromise.” Reporters knew the drill so well they cranked out their stories faster than a script for a new Saw movie and went home. One senator didn’t even bother to come back from his vacation for any of it.

It’s said that the final stage of grief is acceptance. We need look no further for evidence that our government has been dead for a while than that Californians are flirting with Oregon while businesses have begun dating again (mostly with Nevada and Texas). It’s surely saying something when entrepreneurs hoping for success are leaving the gorgeous mild climate of California for the desert next door.

What not everybody sees is that California is in the late stages of the battle between left and right that is raging across the Western world. We are further down the line than the American government, but not so far as the Greek.

We have leftist aspirations (generous compensation for public workers, a large safety net for the unfortunate and the poor, plenty of punishments for big mean businesses and greedy rich people, various other sacred cows that no one will touch), but still some right-wing impulses (low property taxes through Prop 13, an increasing disregard for unions, a tough-on-crime approach that increases the cost of prisons, a resistance to raising “revenues” any further). One thinker writing in National Review a few months back called it the problem of the two Santas – each side competing to outdo the other with their own brand of generosity.

Faithfully believing in our Santas, we Californians have brought this outcome on ourselves with the hodgepodge of propositions and budgetary demands we’ve imposed over the years. In one election we’ll insist that our government always be generous in funding schools, but in the next we’ll refuse to pay for it. We’ve promised ourselves the benefits of big government without agreeing to the costs. Hence the enormous, intractable deficit.

The perennial budget impasse is absolutely a failure of the legislature, but we have empowered lawmakers to fail with our own confused personalities. Sooner or later, one side will have to win – government will have to be reduced in size and expense, or additional taxes will have to be levied to give us our goody bags. Which solution you advocate depends on your ideology, but speaking for myself I know of no government that has taxed its people into prosperity.

Regardless, no doubt perfectly aware of the difficult decisions that lie before our state, a good legislator should be honest in presenting the two options before the voters. Few are.

“Legislators are much more worried about their reelections than the state of the state,” someone who works closely with the Legislature told me. “Even the budget battle itself is just an extension of campaigning, with all sorts of ‘trailer bills’ added in at the last minute to bring home the bacon for their own voters.”

“A real budget solution might endanger their campaign,” the source continued.

She’s right, which brings us back to looking in the mirror. Shouldn’t a real budget solution actually strengthen a legislator’s reelection prospects?

Propose your own solutions to ROB OLSON at rwolson@ucdavis.edu.

2 COMMENTS

  1. “entrepreneurs hoping for success are leaving the gorgeous mild climate of California for the desert next door. ”

    Ever heard of El Centro? Imperial? Calexico? Death Valley? Palm Springs? California has a HUGE desert.

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