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In California, it's the budget and the economy

Lawmakers have to take care of these two things before anything else.

January 06, 2009

California has a long to-do list, featuring healthcare reform, repairing the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, continuing to lead the fight for a clean environment, updating transportation infrastructure and fixing the broken system of governance. But those challenges and many others have been moved to the back burner behind two matters that deserve, for now, to come first.

One -- the state's second-biggest emergency -- is the economy. The recession is national in scope, but California has been hit hard by home-loan defaults and must take steps to slow job losses and speed recovery. That, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says, is the reason he is demanding a rollback in environmental protections that he claims are slowing the construction of projects funded by bond money. He also wants more private contracting of state works.

But there is a difference between emergency response and panic. Getting the economy moving and getting people to work, though tremendously important, can't excuse throwing all those back-burnered pots off the stove entirely. Schwarzenegger embraced California's environmental leadership; it would be foolish for him now to sweep aside the California Environmental Quality Act in the name of marginal or speculative economic stimulus. There may be a public-policy debate to have over CEQA, but it should not be ditched merely to boost growth.

The California Chamber of Commerce and other business groups had CEQA on their target list long before the recession, so environmental activists and their Democratic Party allies naturally are on guard against any ploy to characterize environmental laws as luxuries that suddenly have become unaffordable. Poor project planning and pollution are bad for the economy too, and their ill-effects last for decades.

Schwarzenegger also has long wanted to contract out more state projects, especially in transportation construction, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Just as the governor shouldn't expect to use the recession as an opportunity to pursue an agenda that otherwise was making no headway, Democrats can't expect to be able to just say no to any difficult labor or environmental change that, if carefully tailored, may work to California's benefit.

That brings us to the state's first-biggest emergency and what ought to be its top priority: getting a balanced budget. California may soon run out of cash, and then no number of environmental or labor rollbacks will help. The governor and Democrats -- and legislative Republicans too, should they want to reengage in realistic budget making -- should stop their game of chicken and get the cash flowing again.

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