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Heroes Ride on Car Tax

October 27, 2003

By Sunday night, wildfires had consumed hundreds of thousands of acres in Southern California. Lives were lost. Hundreds of houses burned. But what's remarkable, given the intensity of the blazes, the tinderbox conditions and the relentless winds, was that thousands more homes were saved. Firefighters from dozens of cities and six counties worked a blur of hours without sleep, breathing dangerous, dense smoke as they soaked roofs, slapped down ember-caused flare-ups and aimed hoses into the bases of the marching firestorms.

Some homeowners, as always, had helped themselves by replacing flammable roofs and clearing weeds and brush from around their homes. People who had built in the foothills on the edge of the forest seemed, as always, to understand the trade-offs they made in living so close to a beloved natural world that had no regard for that affection. This time, though, the damage was not confined to the properties of those who half- expected it. Calm suburbs burst into flame as shocked and terrified residents drove away in a high-stakes race against fire.

Imagine what the toll would be now without the sooty-faced and exhausted firefighters, without the police officers who worked long, smoky hours to evacuate the endangered and prevent looting of what had to be left behind.

These are thoughts that Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger and his staff are surely thinking. Here's why: If Schwarzenegger rescinds the vehicle license fee increase, as he has promised to do, the consequences will be severe.

Almost all of the $4 billion that would be returned to motorists supports city and county public safety, including police and fire departments. The state has no money to make up for such a loss. Cities and counties, starved of state funds for years, could make up only a fraction of the lost revenue.

There is a small but fervent minority in the state Legislature, led by state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), that believes government must be starved, severely reducing its overall size to get rid of bloat. That is an important reason why McClintock, who ran an impressive campaign in the recall, led an effort to get rid of the car tax entirely. Today, as fire marches through McClintock's hilly district in eastern Ventura County, as his constituents' homes burn and firefighters risk their lives to save as many others as possible, perhaps he is having second thoughts.

Schwarzenegger last week left budget briefings with Gov. Gray Davis and state Treasurer Phil Angelides sobered and shaken at the depth of the state's budget problems.

He should move cautiously in wielding his budget ax, thinking first of the heroes whose livelihoods will be under his blade.

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