If the state of California could tax self-congratulation over missed political opportunities, we might have the money to rebuild our water infrastructure.
The water bond placed on the ballot by the legislature is of a piece with other less than impressive triumphs of the Brown Era. Presented with events and political possibilities to make big progress on a crucial issue, political leaders choose something small that doesn’t change all that much.
In water, the state’s needs – just to meet existing population and existing repair – run into tens, if not hundreds of billions of dollars. And this year, with a historic drought, the time was right for a fix. The state already had an $11 billion bond on the ballot that – despite constant criticism of it by the governor and media as full of pork – was doing well in polls.
So what to do? The moment called for remaking the bond to make it stronger, and larger. Yes, borrowing is not the best way to deal with infrastructure, but at $11 billion, the bond on the ballot only dealt with a small fraction of California’s water infrastructure needs. The move was to take out the pork that would make the bond politically vulnerable – and then add to it with other needs. If the polls showed public support for an $11 billion bond with pork, support should be strong for a bond that did more important things with less pork.
But that is not how things work in today’s California. The media and governor fixated on the number and – for no mathematical reason – decided the bond needed to be smaller because, well, it needed to be smaller. $6 billion was the marker the governor set down. The new replacement bond ended up being a little bigger than that – and congratulations all around. Because what’s important is creating the illusion of fiscal discipline, not addressing as many water problems as you can. Forge the notion that fixing infrastructure in a timely fashion can save money in the long run.
If this kind of approach feels familiar, it’s because it was the same dynamic that drove the missed opportunity of 2012. Two years ago, poll showed durable, even historic support for statewide tax increases. And a measure to pass permanent tax increases to fund schools, the biggest piece of the budget, made the ballot. But Governor Brown wanted his own measure, which after a compromise with a teachers’ union was rushed onto the ballot. And that measure included only modest – and temporary – tax increases.
The measure won easily. But all those extra points in the margin of victory don’t buy more money for schools, more instruction time for kids, or any of our needs. The governor didn’t get nearly as much as he could have.
Of course, criticism of this approach is barely heard. It’s considered unrealistic to suggest that the state should look at its needs – which have piled up after decades of underinvestment and poor governance – and then fund them. The Brown strategy, which might be called “Why Take $1 When 50 Cents Is a Little Bit Easier,” is considered politically realistic, and there is no higher value in 2014 California politics than realism.
But this is a peculiar sort of realism. Taken with a long view, it’s a realism that seems irresponsible, a way of deferring problems in order to win easier victories today. History won’t treat it kindly.