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Todd Spitzer's Red Menace

September 29, 2003

Was that Republican Assemblyman Todd "No New Taxes" Spitzer denouncing the state's decision to reduce expenses by cutting off aid to counties for fighting the red fire ant? Funny how reduced government looks good only in someone else's backyard.

Close to half of the $4 million spent on ant-fighting contracts each year normally goes to Orange County, the epicenter of the ant battle and Spitzer's home territory.

With its fast and aggressive campaign against the stinging, crop-devouring insects, the county's Vector Control District has succeeded beyond all expectations in rooting the pill-size beasts from people's yards, using a growth regulator to sterilize the queens and a metabolic inhibitor to keep ants from digesting their food. Many nests remain, though, mostly in well-irrigated commons areas within and around housing developments. Spitzer, a vociferous opponent of raising taxes to balance the budget, says the state Department of Food and Agriculture should "look elsewhere" to make its cuts. Trouble is, the agency's already done that, including scaling back state-line highway inspections to keep out these and other pests.

In Texas, which acted too late with too little, the ants are entrenched, munching through $1 billion in crops a year. No vegans, they also devour the eggs of reptiles and ground birds and thus have devastated the Texas quail population.

They swarm anyone who steps on or near their difficult-to-detect mounds, painfully stinging. And they have an eerie attraction to electrical fields and a gourmet's taste for wiring. In the 11 Southern states where they are a persistent problem, traffic signals have gone dark and some airports have suddenly lost their lights to gnawing fire ants.

California officials are thrilled with the counties' success in keeping the ants at bay. Yet almost every county in Southern California will lose its state money to continue the effort.

That's why the state should summon forth at least partial funding to continue supplying ant birth control and diet pills. Inviting the ants back into yards and beyond would be a waste of the $30 million spent so far on eradication.

Perhaps, though, the irony of the situation will not be wasted on Spitzer, a rookie legislator who is learning quickly that small government works great, except in his constituents' backyards, to which fire ants would be happy to return.

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