Today is the day that Governor Schwarzenegger was scheduled to deliver his annual State of the State Address to a joint session of the Legislature, and by extension the people of California. Since he has postponed his speech until January 15th, allow me to fill the void for all you who have been waiting to hear what he has to say,
I don’t know about you, but when he does speak to the people, I do not want to hear any high falutin’ rhetoric about California being the seventh largest economy in the world or what wonderful global warming laws (I’m sorry, climate change laws) we have passed that nobody yet knows the cost of.
No, what I want to hear is some honest, brutal talk about how bad things really are without false hope, phony budget numbers or unattainable political promises. No talk of anything other than the fiscal mess we are in and how we can get out of it, and how we are going to pay for the many problems we have neglected for so long.
So for all you political junkies who can’t wait until January 15th, here is my suggestion to Governor Schwarzenegger for his upcoming State of the State speech.
My fellow Californians.
This will be a short speech. There is no need for fancy words and lofty rhetoric. You need to hear the truth.
California is at the end of an era that began with the coming of the Second World War. During the war, California became a key player in FDR’s “arsenal of democracy”. We produced the weapons of war and trained some of the men who would use them to achieve victory. During the postwar years, California was transformed into an economic juggernaut and our population grew exponentially.
We built roads and schools that were the envy of the world. We had natural resources in great abundance. We thought we had achieved paradise.
We also had the ability to get things done as both political parties worked together for the good of the state and its people. Back then, before we changed our state constitution in 1966, we had a part-time Legislature and they managed to get the job done anyway.
I am here to tell you that those days are over.
We are no longer the “box office star” we once were. Much like Gloria Swanson’s character, Norma Desmond in the movie Sunset Boulevard, we are an aging star desperately trying to reclaim a glorious past, but trapped in an unforgiving present.
So where do we stand today? Where to begin.
Our critical infrastructure of roads and bridges built in the fifties and sixties is stressed to the limit and we have not kept pace in either maintenance or building the necessary additional roads and bridges needed for a still growing state.
And when we do finally build new infrastructure, it takes years from concept to completion. We have created a byzantine network of environmental laws and regulations that are used to stop projects that some don’t want built at all. We should change the motto of our state from “Eureka” to “NIMBY”.
Let me give you one example. The Loma Prieta earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay Area in October 1989, severely damaging the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on the Oakland side. After much discussion, it was decided to replace the existing structure with a new bridge.
A citizen’s commission was formed to plan and design the bridge, but infighting and parochial politics took over and what we got was a camel, which is a horse designed by a committee.
The quake happened while George Deukmejian was Governor, but construction did not begin until late January 2002 when Gray Davis was Governor.
Thirteen years passed before work on this critical transportation artery began. And it probably won’t be completed until 2012 or 2013 at the earliest, 23 years after the quake.
We should all hope that our luck holds until then and we don’t have another major earthquake in the Bay Area, because if there is, the old bridge will collapse without its replacement being ready. How much do you think that will cost?
Twenty-three years to build a bridge that is vital to the economic health of California? I can only describe what happened then as arrogant madness.
Another part of our infrastructure that we have neglected is our water supply. This includes water storage as well as our intricate levee system in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. We depend on Mother Nature and the Colorado River for our water, and yet we don’t have any new storage capacity to capture the water when it rains!
And a catastrophic failure of our levees will affect the whole state and cost billions to fix. We need to invest now in reconstruction rather than pay later for a preventable disaster.
Our schools are not producing a product that is worthy of our state’s great history in developing a modern public education system.
Our students are not prepared for college or life because we have dumbed down the curriculum and lowered the bar for what constitutes success so as not to hurt student’s fragile self-esteem.
But in doing so, we are setting them up for ultimate failure, because in the real world, it’s not their inflated grade point average that they will be judged by, but what they actually know.
Ten years ago, a study found that 54 % of CSU students were not prepared for college level math and 47% not prepared for English. They needed to take remedial courses to learn what they should have been taught in high school. Just last year, another study found similar data for not only the CSU system, but also the UC system.
Ten years, billions of dollars spent and the same result.
The California Teachers Association treats public education like a political football, screaming bloody murder if any cuts are proposed.
How about producing a better product and getting rid of the top-heavy bureaucracy of administrators who are frittering away massive amounts of taxpayer dollars meant for the classroom?
The bills are already coming due for the huge pension and retiree healthcare obligations that the state has incurred over the last few years.
Bad investments by CALPERS AND CALSTRS and the stock market downturn have created a shortfall that by law must be made up by the taxpayers, and we don’t even know how much that will cost in the future.
Some of our smaller cities teeter on the verge of bankruptcy just to meet those obligations. And more will follow if something radical is not done soon.
My message to the union bosses is that either they become part of the solution or the voters will solve the problem at the ballot box, and they will use a meat axe to make cuts to their pensions and healthcare rather than a scalpel.
There is no need to go on. If I haven’t already gotten your attention, then we are worse off than I thought.
How do we fix this chronic disease that is slowly killing the California Dream?
First, we can all act like adults and face up to the problem. Second, both parties need to tell their constituencies, whether they be unions on the Democratic side or anti-tax groups on the Republican side, that both their positions are untenable in these uncertain and difficult times.
Simply put, we need to cut spending and raise revenue.
I can already hear the cries from both sides as they gear up for political battle. “No taxes!” and “Children will be thrown into the street!” will be their messages as they ask the taxpayers to vote on solutions that should be done by us, the elected officials.
We are paid to make the tough calls not deferring them to the voters. Those who don’t want to take unpopular stands, make the tough decisions or are more worried about future political viability should find another line of work
The taxpayers did not hire me or the Legislature so that we could abdicate our responsibility and pass that along to them. We ran for office and got elected. The responsibility for this mess is ours and ours alone.
The voters sent a message to all politicians across the nation last year. Do your job or you are gone. Message received.
To put my money where my mouth is, I am dropping all my previous plans for untying this Gordian knot.
In the past few weeks as I grappled with this problem, I have come to the conclusion that I too have been looking for a solution that only postpones the pain.
I did not run for Governor to preside over California’s demise and I will not stand by and watch partisan politics hasten that demise.
We do not need a temporary budget solution that uses gimmicks, borrows against future revenues, and is based in ever changing economic assumptions and wishful thinking.
On that I was wrong.
We need a Grand Compromise that takes into account not just this year’s budget or next year’s budget but fundamentally changes the way we run the government of California.
We need a master plan that addresses building critical infrastructure. One that radically changes our bloated, out dated education system and how it’s funded while also offering parents more choices.
Our plan needs to address the long term costs of government worker’s pensions and retiree healthcare before we are bankrupted meeting those obligations.
We need to streamline our environmental and land use laws so that we can build what we need to when we need to. We also need to cap future spending so that when we get back on our feet we don’t spend ourselves back into another fiscal disaster.
And we need to establish a fair system of taxation where everybody shares in the sacrifice that is to come and we can pay for all the work that needs to be done. It also must be sustainable in good times and bad. Depending on the rich to do well is not a viable system of collecting revenue.
As Governor, I am open to any and all proposals that meet these criteria.
And I will not sign any plan that does not.
Time has run out. There are no easy solutions. And the cost of delay is unthinkable.
If either side of the aisle thinks there is political advantage to be gained by inaction or pandering to special interests, they are misreading the people and eventually will pay the political price.
And if the people think that recovery will be pain free, we as the elected leaders of California need to disabuse them of that notion.
Pain is inevitable. But so is recovery if we take the necessary steps right now and get our fiscal house in order.
In closing let me say, we all have the privilege of living in one of the greatest places on the face of the earth. Those that came before us left us a rich inheritance from what they built, but they also left us with a charge. To make California an even better place than what they left us.