The New California Adventure

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

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.

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