By PETE GOLIS
“Fewer and fewer people were speaking of the California dream these days.”
— Historian Kevin Starr, in “Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003.”
On Monday, Gov. Jerry Brown will release an updated budget plan designed to make sense of the latest state revenue reports. The event will occasion the usual posturing about the mix of tax measures and spending cuts necessary to maintain the pretense that the budget is balanced.
As state residents have learned from long experience, these exchanges are as useless as they are predictable.
What the coming week’s partisanship won’t provide is a serious conversation about where California goes from here. So long as state politics is driven by self-interest, ideology and short-term advantage, there is no room for imagining how we might shape a better future.
Recently, I was in a meeting that had nothing to do with politics. In introducing himself, the speaker mentioned that he graduated from UC Berkeley and that he was the first member of his family go to college. Then, as he started to tear up, he blinked and confessed that he was saddened to watch the relentless erosion of public education.
He knew his success came from that gift — a legacy that is now being denied to many from the next generation of Californians.
Meanwhile, the drumbeat of bad news continues. On Friday, state parks officials announced plans to close 70 state parks, including Annadel, Austin Creek, Jack London, Petaluma Adobe and Sugarloaf in Sonoma County.
We have known for several years that California is in trouble — even if our politicians didn’t want to talk about it.
Once, we celebrated the boundless potential of what we liked to call the California dream. In 1949, at the end of the state’s first century, historian Carey McWilliams famously argued that its unique geography and history made California “the great exception among the American states.” But now we are not so sure. In his 2004, book, “Coast of Dreams,” historian Kevin Starr said the events of recent years leave us to question whether California is still “the great exception.”
Starr surveyed the adversities and social turmoil that afflicted the state between 1990 and 2003 and concluded: “No longer was California to be found in its myth and then in reality. California had become, rather, a reality in search of a myth that had once been believed in.”
Having built universities, schools, parks, libraries and other public facilities, he said, the state’s residents were left to choose: “Were Californians willing to pay for all this, even if they had the revenues in hand? And if not, what were they willing to pay for? What was the California they wanted to hold in common?” To hold in common. When distrust abounds, it seems so quaint now to imagine that we could believe in an idea together.
These days, we are up to our necks in partisanship and politicians who — out of fear or smallness of purpose — won’t talk to us about big ideas.
Last week, columnist Dan Walters, who has been covering state government for more than 35 years, didn’t sugarcoat what he called the “dumbing-down” of the Legislature. Here’s what Walters wrote about an institution that “once attracted very smart people:”
“The Legislature’s capacity for critical thinking began to decline as it evolved into a body of full-time professionals in the 1970s and plummeted as polarization emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. Ever-fewer thoughtful people were attracted to an institution that not only punished independent intelligence but rewarded robotic group-think.”
If Walters’ analysis is correct, it’s not likely that the current roster of lawmakers can manage the present, much less make plans to get California moving again.
But we can hope for redemption if only because, well, what other choice do we have? The governor and the Legislature this week will try one more time to find common ground, bringing spending in line with revenues, more or less.
Let’s hope they will be willing to perform this act of citizenship, while limiting the damage inflicted on students, the aged and the sick. Let’s hope they will understand that a chronic budget deficit won’t be fixed without cutting spending and extending existing taxes.
It can’t be fun to be a sitting state legislator. Your approval ratings are in the toilet, and journalists keep saying you don’t match up with the “very smart people” who used to serve in the Legislature.
If I were a state lawmaker — you have to use your imagination here — I would want to prove my critics wrong. So here’s your chance, Mr. and Ms. Politician. All it takes is independence, courage, patience and the recognition that the choice is between compromise and disaster.
As for you, my fellow voters, taxpayers and citizens, you could help by paying attention again. In your absence, various special interests have managed to steer the state into the ditch.
It’s a full-blown crisis now. Previous generations of Californians would be shocked to see the results of the neglect and negligence.
We’d better fix it while there’s still time.
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.