The New California Adventure

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

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.

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