The late Illinois U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen supposedly said in examining the federal budget, “A billion dollars here, a billion dollars there and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” In California, a billion dollars here and a billion dollars there is a good indicator on how big the problems are that the state faces. Dealing with these problems a billion dollars appears merely to be chump change.
How many times has the billion-dollar figure turned up in important news stories about California just this week?
First, we heard that PG&E was offering $1 billion dollars to 14 local governments to pay for fire damage caused by downed power lines. That’s a healthy amount for a company that filed for bankruptcy. But the figure is just a fraction of what PG&E is facing in lawsuits filed by insurance companies, local governments and property owners. The total of the lawsuit ask is estimated at around $30 billion, making $1 billion chump change.
Then we learned that Google was going to invest a billion dollars to help with the housing crisis in the Silicon Valley. The big tech employers are accused of driving the housing crisis by dramatically lifting the cost of housing. Google’s response is to offer $1 billion, which includes $750 million worth of land it owns that the company says can be developed for housing.
Yet, critics charge that Google’s monetary offering will only make a small dent in the housing problem. Many more homes will have to be built to meet the housing demand critics assert, meaning a billion dollars is a small down payment—chump change—to the housing problem faced not only by Silicon Valley but by the state of California.
Yesterday, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported on a study that claimed it would cost $1 billion to protect the San Diego County shoreline against rising tides. But that would only be a sliver of the $22 billion needed to protect the entire California coast.
Also yesterday, the state auditor, Elaine Howle, revealed that the California State University system hide away $1.5 billion in discretionary money while school officials lobbied for more money from the legislature and invoked tuition increases.
Cal State objected to the characterization that the money was surplus but rather reserve funds needed for special circumstances. The disagreement between the auditor and Cal State is how transparent the university system was in revealing these funds so that they could be considered in both tuition increase discussions and money for the university system in the state budget.
Whether reserves or surplus, the $1.5 billion set aside shows the big costs of higher education and raises a valid question: In this particular billion dollar scenario are the students and the legislators the chumps?