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Scorning Public Life Is Shameful

September 21, 2003|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr is state librarian of California and university professor in the department of history at USC. His "Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003" is forthcoming from Alfred A. Knopf.

SACRAMENTO — Behind the Sturm und Drang of the recall and the continuing budget crisis is the real story: Californians no longer sufficiently value state government.

If they did, they'd understand that services cost money, and that the state is in a tight spot. The funding level for K-12 is mandated by initiative. Debt service is a nonnegotiable obligation. Yet the Republicans won't approve new taxes, and the state Constitution prohibits California from going into debt to pay continuing expenses. When you add all this up, the result is that the Legislature and the governor will have to close any revenue gap in next year's budget by slashing spending on universities, prisons and other programs, according to a former state economist. Think of it. Up to $40 billion, in a worst-case scenario, or $20 billion, if the economy improves, may be needed to achieve balance if the next budget cycle is anything like the last one.

Proponents of Gov. Gray Davis' recall repeatedly claim that the money can be found by eliminating waste. Put another way, they regard a significant number of state services as unnecessary. Underlying that thinking is the subtle suggestion that state workers are not fully carrying their load -- or worse, are loafers deserving of the sack. These charges represent a dangerous assault on the value of the public sector.

What is motivating this attack on statewide programs and employees? It comes partly from Americans' undying suspicion of government. A pervasive distrust of politicians is another factor. Both attitudes have their healthy aspects. If liberty is to be preserved, those who hold and exercise power must be viewed with continuing skepticism.

But lately in California, these longtime American attitudes have exploded into a supernova of suspicion and distrust. This too has its long-range causes. For two decades, Californians have not been engaged -- psychologically, intellectually, imaginatively -- at the statewide level. In the era of Govs. Earl Warren, Goodwin Knight and Pat Brown, Sacramento was at the center of the California experience. In such public-minded visions as the freeway system, the statewide water plan and the master plan for higher education, Californians expressed their highest creativity.

Then things began to change. State government became the problem, not the solution. With the information revolution -- realized and symbolized by the Internet -- California began to devolve into a federation of local autonomies. State government didn't disappear, but it became increasingly invisible as local identities and values superseded Sacramento's. Part of the reason that state programs got so out of sync with sustainable revenues was this invisibility. Californians were too busy finding California locally to bother with finding it in Sacramento. Term limits finalized this devolution, for they brought state government a steady succession of local and locally oriented elected officials.

One of the benefits of the recall is that Californians are refocusing their attention on the statewide public realm. It also highlights the sea change in Republican attitudes. Two-thirds of the golden age of public achievement, it must be remembered, was presided over by Republican governors. It could even be said that because California has been a predominantly Republican state in its 153-year existence, Republican energies were paramount in creating public California -- freeways, aqueducts and reservoirs, colleges and universities. The California many lament having lost was a California, in significant measure, fostered by the assent of Republicans who, while demanding efficiencies, recognized the value of taxes spent to create public value and services.

When I hear the rubbish about how wasted taxpayers' money amounts to 15% of the state budget, I ask myself: What will Californians be willing to do without, now that they seem bent on making war on the public sector? Will they want their forest fires fought? Their highways maintained? Their wildlife and water preserved? Their coast protected? Their abandoned children brought into foster-care programs? Do they still want to be able to visit public parks?

Who will take drunk drivers off the road? Keep dangerous felons under lock and key? Administer our courts, indeed, sit as jurists on our benches? Who will build libraries, tutor the illiterate, send talking books to the blind? Who will teach in community colleges, state colleges and universities? Who will administer Medi-Cal for the elderly, manage inland waterways, repair bridges, subsidize public art, take care of the feeble-minded, bury the unclaimed dead?

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