By PETE GOLIS
The slow and unsteady dismantling of public services continued last week. At every level of government in California, elected officials continued to grapple with a menu of unpalatable choices.
These spending cuts manage to be shortsighted and inevitable at the same time because state and local government expanded at a rapid pace — and then was slow to respond when revenues didn’t keep up.
At a recent gathering, Robert Eyler, the Sonoma State University economist, used colorful language that aptly describes the work product of state government and the hardships now being inflicted on all of us.
“We’re building a large sandwich of poop,” he said, “and we’re all going to have to take a nibble.”
In his defense, let me mention that professor Eyler didn’t know I would be quoting him for a Sunday morning breakfast crowd.
As this train wreck proceeds, one interest group or another continues to insist that its favorite cause deserves to be the great exception: Whatever you do, don’t cut the program I care about.
This is the problem, isn’t it? In our politics, it’s convenient to pretend that budgets are not a zero-sum game. There’s always more money where that came from, right?
In Santa Rosa, lawmakers and park advocates pressed the state to back down from plans to close Annadel State Park.
Yes, Annadel is a treasure. I love it, too.
But if he were here, Gov. Jerry Brown would want me to ask: What would you cut instead? Education? Health care for low-income children? Home care for seniors? The state universities? Support for local government?
Single-interest politics is the old politics, and once upon a time, it worked. Now it only gets in the way of recognizing that our world has changed, there will be sacrifice all around, and if we want something, we need to figure out a way to pay for it.
When it comes to Annadel, we can afford it. We don’t know how many people use the park every year, but it’s safe to say that if we had a dollar or two for every hiker, jogger and mountain biker, we wouldn’t have a problem.
We only need to figure out an effective and fair way to organize the faithful, recognizing that some things can’t be free anymore.
From parks to the maintenance of hundreds of miles of rural roads, we’ve been conditioned to expect that there will always be enough money to pay for everything.
Now, not so much. Globalization and technology have turned our economy upside-down.
And the pain of these economic troubles is worse than it needs to be because a government dominated by special interests pretended that nothing had to change — that it was OK, in good times and bad, to let spending race ahead of income.
None of this was difficult to predict. In 2005, here’s what one columnist — me — wrote about the latest delusional budget from Sacramento: “One more time, the state’s leaders will have postponed the reckoning, enacting a budget that fails to respond to a long-term, structural deficit or to confront all the ways that the state’s most fundamental problems are getting short shrift.”
That 2005 column went on to blame the state Legislature for botching efforts “to reform a top-heavy state government and to repair a pension system that cannot be sustained over time …”
You should feel sorry for the county supervisors, city council members and school trustees left to clean up the mess. They will be blamed and vilified and left to feel guilty because they know these spending cuts will harm people in need.
None of these decisions makes sense — except that when you can’t pay your bills, you have no choice.
UCLA economists last week predicted that the jobless rate in California will remain in the double digits into 2013. No one is surprised. The drumbeat of news about a jobless recovery continues. And if you move around your town, you can feel it.
An optimist might say that at least elected officials are starting to act like adults.
Still, Santa Rosa City Manager Kathy Millison worried out loud that human nature and political pressure will tempt her City Council to delay the reckoning one more time.
The question is, she said: “Do we have the fortitude to make tough decisions to get our house in order?”
We are left to hope for moments of courage that recognize that revenues are declining and government has maxed out its credit cards. (California already ranks last among the 50 states in creditworthiness.)
None of this will be fun. For the elected officials doing the right things, there will be no banquets or tributes. But if we learned anything in the last six years, it’s that ducking the hard choices only makes it worse.
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at email@example.com.