Richard Reeves

The Late, Great State of California

LOS ANGELES -- California, contrary to popular opinion, is not broke. It's only crazy, mean and at war with itself.

You may have noticed that the governor and legislators of the Golden State finally produced a "balanced" budget with a deficit in double-digit billions. But, hey, who's counting?

Yes, the greatest public university in the world, home to dozens of Nobel Prize winners, has become a victim of a thousand cuts, and the students protesting tuition increases of more than 30 percent are trashing the buildings. Richard Mathies, the dean of the chemistry department at the University of California, Berkeley, a campus that has produced 21 Nobel winners, commented:

"Dismantling this institution, which is a huge economic driver for the state, is a stupendously stupid thing to do, but that's the path the Legislature has embarked on."

Sure, the state's chief justice, Ronald George, traveled to Cambridge, Mass., to tell the American Academy of Arts and Sciences that the state is "dysfunctional." His reasoning:

"California's lawmakers, and the state itself, have been placed in a fiscal straitjacket by a steep two-thirds-vote requirement -- imposed at the ballot box -- for raising taxes. ... Much of this constitutional and statutory structure has been brought about not by legislative fact-finding and deliberation, but rather by the approval of voter initiative measures, often funded by special interests."

He did not mention that many residents think putting the legislators in straitjackets is an idea worth considering, if anyone knew who the legislators were. Term limits and gerrymandered districts have turned the Legislature into a carousel for people who don't know how to ride and tend to fall off the wooden horses. On their heads.

Most of what is happening here is the state's own fault. Legislators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger deserve the people of California and vice-versa. William H. Gross, who runs PIMCO, the world's largest mutual bond fund, based in Newport Beach, put it this way to Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times:

"The state's laws are almost tragically shaped by a form of direct democracy. Propositions from conservatives and liberals alike have locked up much of the budget, with Proposition 13 in 1978 reducing property taxes by 57 percent, and Proposition 98 in 1988 requiring 40 percent of the general fund to be spent on schools. Recently, much of the excess has been gobbled up not only by teachers, but unbelievably by a prison (guards) lobby that would be the envy of any on Washington's K Street."

All that adds up to gridlock. It adds up to endless culture clashes that go well beyond the old North-South clashes that once defined much of California's politics and governance. Public employees, particularly the unionized teachers and prison guards -- their numbers and the numbers of prisoners expanding because of simplistic "three-strike life imprisonment" laws -- have financed legislative candidates and then manipulated them to channel money to themselves.

The most devastating battle on California's political landscape has been old vs. young. And the old are winning big time. Because of Prop 13 and later corollaries, old folks pay lower taxes and receive more medical care at the expense of new schools, more teachers and smaller class sizes. California's public schools, elementary and secondary, once the best by test scores in the nation, are now among the worst.

That is part of a national struggle of young vs. old: The old get medical care and don't want to finance schooling for other people's children; the young get less attention and inherit more national debt.

So, what to do? No one in California has a clue. The most radical solution at hand is to elect the state's attorney general as the next governor. That would be Jerry Brown, who was governor 30 years ago when a lot of the state's problems began.

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