What Pete's Not Saying The Real State Of The Golden State By Melinda Welsh Jan. 8, 1992. G
What Pete's Not Saying: The Real State Of The Golden State
By Melinda Welsh
Jan. 8, 1992. Gov. Pete Wilson marched with ironic assurance into a
state Assembly chambers jam-packed with politicians, pundits,
pollsters and media types. Pete fearless leader of the sixth-largest
economy on the globe advanced to the podium and proceeded with that
annual rite of gubernatorial passage known as California's "State of
the State" address.
Though laced with cautionary language, Pete's recitation was
chock-o-block full of standard-issue political optimism (the guarded
kind that centrists love) about the rosy future we face (as long as we
crack down on welfare cheats and immigrants) in the Golden State.
Basically, the whole scene constituted a Public Relations Love Fest of
the highest order.
Because it doesn't take Einstein to recognize that optimism isn't
really in order for the Golden State at the moment; it doesn't take
Jeanne Dixon to pronounce that California, the richest and most
populated state in the union, is actually headed for the toilet
especially in its capacity to educate its children, provide health
care for its citizens, deal adequately with its criminal element and
rid itself of its raunchy air and congested freeways. Let me admit:
The year has been big for California bashing, and it's no real fun
adding to the stew. We had the Time magazine bash, the Fortune bash
and the Newsweek bash. Plus the Standard & Poor's bash. (San Francisco
Chronicle writer Alice Kahn even notes that the year past saw
bikini-clad Barbie change her beach of preference from Malibu to
Hawaii.) But maybe we deserve some bashing.
For now, let's get this into one obituary-like paragraph: Since the
late '70s, California has moved from "first to worst" in almost every
California children are less likely to have health insurance, less
likely to be immunized and are less likely to go to college than
children in any other state in the union. Education-wise, our state
ranks near the bottom in terms of per-capita expenditures for our
students, and we have the largest average class size in the nation.
Smog, mostly from the 25 million vehicles on our freeways, has fouled
the air; the Los Angeles basin has the dirtiest in the country. The
California coast has the most DDT ever found in marine mammals.
About 90 percent of our old-growth forests are history. Ditto with our
wetlands. We have the most congested freeways and surface streets in
We have the highest housing costs in the country. Our crime rate is
astronomical and, statistically speaking, the prisons we've been
erecting up and down the state haven't helped. Health-wise, we have
the fifth-highest rate of uninsured citizens (about 5.2 million) in
the country. Thanks to the recession, 1 million Californians are out
of work, and we have an unemployment rate that's higher than the
national average and a homeless population that's soaring. About 31%
of our citizens are on welfare. To top it all, we're facing an
unprecedented fiscal crunch the one that led to last year's state
deficit of 14 billion was only the beginning.
All this in a state that, in the mid-'70s, had the most enviable
education system in the nation. All this in a state that used to boast
one of the nation's most sublime physical environments from its
Pacific coastline to its Sierra Nevada. All this in California, a
state that is today, arguably, the most politically potent state in
the history of the union because of its new, census-driven, 52-member
House delegation and its 54 (one-fifth of those needed to elect a
president) electoral votes.
So what happened? Does the California future really have to resemble
Ridley Scott's Blade Runner vision of a grim, high-tech, grossly
polluted, ethnically volatile wasteland? And at what point does our
decline become irreversible?
CALIFORNIA: FROM FIRST TO WORST
This from Time magazine's Nov. 18 cover story on California: Whatever
happens now in California will be happening to America before long,
and to the entire world a little while after that. If you want to know
whether America still works, then ask whether California still works.
So does California still work? Scary question, due in large part to
the voter-sponsored 1978 revolution for tax and fiscal reform. We're
talking results of Prop. 13 and the Gann limit, folks. Because the
unintended consequence of that revolution was the basic devastation of
the state's infrastructure. All California needed in addition was a
population boom (and it got one!) for the state's prospects to head
from first to worst, from 1978 to 1990.
Here's a look at what's been happening in a few categories.
By the year 2000 there will be no ethnic majority to speak of in the
state of California, only minorities. (In fact, about 20% of the
state's population is now foreign-born, migrating primarily from Asia
and Latin America.) The trend will continue until after the turn of
the century, and our schools in a preview of our future society will
look more and more like a rainbow of faces representing a multitude of
languages. (Since the passage of Prop.13 in 1978, non-English speaking
students have increased from 5% to 13% of the school population.)
As the population changes, so must our public institutions change,
Well, not in California. Despite the fact that in some school
districts as many as 80% of the students are limited or non-English
speaking, immigrant children are still treated like a fringe element
instead of what they are: the future core of our working population.
Meanwhile in this situation where innovative teaching systems and
highly skilled teachers are essential the state's funding per student
has been flat for nearly 20 years.
Throughout the 1980s, California's school revenues as a percentage of
personal income have been close to last in the nation, despite the
generally higher costs of education in this state, and even the best
efforts of California educators and teachers haven't been able to stem
the funding tide. (California spent about 4,075 per pupil in 1988-89,
compared to a national average of 4,896.)
In terms of class size, California has always been larger-than-average
because of its rapidly growing population. But since Prop. 13, the
problem has gotten worse. California is now the second worst state in
the nation in this key indicator.
In the L.A. basin, 8 million cars and trucks spew 1,246 tons of
noxious gasses into the air every day, helping make the region's air
the dirtiest in the nation. Where Los Angeles has made some smog
progress over the past few years, general air quality in the Golden
State has plummeted.
Most of California's original stands of old-growth forests (90% of the
original stands of redwood and Douglas) are already felled, and the
state's 32.5 million acres of remaining forest continue to shrink.
Timber companies battle with environmentalists over what's left.
(Indeed, critics charge the U.S. Forest Service with permitting
ruinous clear-cutting on public lands endangering surviving giant
Pete Wilson did the state a favor in creating a new California
Environmental Protection Act, but he took it back when he limited its
authority. Most recently, he vetoed the so-called "Sierra Accord,"
which was widely perceived as his own administration plan to impose
new timber harvesting rules with stronger environmental protections.
Now he's replaced it with a so-called "Grand Accord" (due for possible
adoption this month), which is a half-baked forest compromise and will
let timber companies continue to get their way with our remaining
On another environmental front, California leads the nation with 283
endangered, threatened or rare species, but despite protections now in
place, two-thirds of these species continue to decline.
Additionally, the Sierras are in trouble from air pollution. One of
the state's unique environmental distinctions, the Delta, has been
clogged by an array of dams, canals and pumps that divert water to
agribusiness and Southern California cities. Also in decline is the
state's former rich network of wetlands (about 90% have disappeared).
It's no big news flash that California and the rest of the nation has
an ailing health care system complete with patient dumping, the
closing of trauma centers and emergency facilities, large financial
losses for hospitals and doctors, and an increased number of pregnant
women with little or no prenatal care. We have rapidly rising medical
care costs, impoverishment of the elderly as a result of uncovered
long-term care costs, and (no big surprise) declining public funds for
public health needs.
In 1990, 19.1% of Californians (that's 5.2 million people) were
uninsured a number that increased by 50% during the 1980s (nationally,
the uninsured rate is 16.5%). About 2 million of those are children.
Of those uninsured, a huge percentage are working-class and
The percent of the state budget spent on medical care has declined
considerably since 1982-83, despite medical care costs that increased
at three times the rate of inflation.
Californians are growing increasingly impatient with health care costs
and access problems. The 1991 Gallup California Health Care Poll found
that 68% of Californians would be willing to pay more taxes to support
health care for the poor, up from 59% in the same poll two years ago.
Three-quarters say the state government should provide a health
insurance plan for everyone who does not have insurance.
California's correction system is a mind-boggling mess. For the past
decade, a combination of "get tough on crime" political rhetoric and
tunnel-vision have burdened California with a wasteful and costly
Despite an explosion in prison construction and population, our crime
rate has not declined over the past decade. Fear of crime may win
elections, but in the end the voters must pay for a system that, at
worst, exacerbates the existing problems of inmates and, at best, does
little more than warehouse over 100,000 men and women in overcrowded,
It's shocking to look at the statistics and realize that the average
California prisoner is not a violent offender. The typical inmate is a
young, substance-abusing, semi-literate, unemployed man of color who
was arrested for a crime that did not involve violence.
Nobody's in favor of turning loose dangerous criminals. But the
complete lack of effective programing for inmates in and out of prison
has turned our prison gates into revolving doors. California taxpayers
have a right to ask themselves whether they are getting their
money's worth when nearly 80% of those prisoners released on parole
will be back again. (In 1989, 47% of those sent to prison were
incarcerated for violating the conditions of their parole they weren't
even convicted of new crimes by a court!)
It costs 20,562 per year to house a convict in a California prison
(which is more than it takes to send a person to the University of
California for a year). The 40,000 parole violators incarcerated in
1989 alone cost the state 360 million. Prison and other criminal
justice costs come directly from general funds at the state and county
level. Can we really afford the results of this illusory "get tough on
crime" prison-building campaign?
CHILDREN AND THE POOR
More of California's children are in deeper trouble than ever before
thanks, among other things, to a decade of program slashing and budget
cuts, an eroded tax base under Prop. 13, the recession, the rise in
single-parent families, and growing national problems such as drug
There are plenty of studies that say California is doing terribly for
its children. A study released in 1989 by Policy Analysis for
California Education (PACE) on the condition of our state's children
demonstrated that the percent of children living in poverty used to be
lower in California than in other states. But by 1980, California's
percentage equalled the nation's, and since 1981, California's child
poverty rate has exceeded the national rate. Today, almost 2 million
California children live in poverty that's about a quarter of all our
The PACE report concludes that from the 1940s until the 1970s,
California led the nation in developing programs (such as child care
and child abuse projects), but that leadership has faded over the past
For now, more children are on waiting lists for child care than the
number of children served by existing programs. Additionally, about
2.1 million children have no public or private health insurance - a
62% increase over the past six years. (California now ranks 42nd among
the 50 states in terms of children without insurance.)
Other children-related conditions have worsened since the late '70s.
California has about the highest rate of incarcerated juveniles in the
nation. Ditto with teen pregnancy. Children Now, an advocacy and
research group, proposes "The Right Start," a program to ensure that
all of California's children start out rightfrom prenatal care to
sound early-childhood education programs. The plan would be expensive,
20 per year for every Californian (as opposed to the 2,000 every
Californian will pay to bail out the failed Savings and Loans?). It's
worth it, says Children Now.
This group's argument: What you spend on one end, you save on the
other. For every 1 we shortchange immunizations, we pay 10 for
children who contract measles. For every 1 we hold back from preschool
education, we pay 4.75 in the costs of special education, public
assistance and crime.
STATE FINANCES: THE BIG EMPTY
Maybe someone will someday develop a language that can make average
citizens understand the inner-workings of the state's budget and tax
system. Until then, we're stuck trusting the numbers that come out of
For now, the numbers say this: Everything has gone blooey. In fact,
some of the figures lately are so staggering, they have pundits and
newspaper columnists scrambling to figure out what's going on. For
starters: When Wilson took office in 1991, he faced a deficit of 14
billion, a vast figure that dwarfed the previous year's 3 billion.
Wilson's people say that's only the beginning.
A big part of California's money hole is a result of the recession and
Reaganomics. Yes, but the Commission on State Finance also identifies
a long-term "structural" deficit of about 5 billion per year. Lenny
Goldberg of the California Tax Reform Association recently released a
report called "Taxation Without Representation" that, among other
things, documents how the "structural" deficit exists because the
state's tax base has been eroded by Prop. 13 and is insufficient to
keep up with growth and the demand for services generated from that
Viewing Prop. 13 as problematic is nothing new: The Los Angeles Times
has called Prop. 13 a "disaster" that has "ripped apart California's
social fabric." Basically, the tax revolution moved California from
the upper ranks to the middle ranks and lower in many categories of
taxing and spending. More numbers: state and local taxes amounted to
140 for every 1,000 of personal income in 1970. In 1989, that fell to
114 per 1,000. And while they've increased slightly this year, they
are still lower than they were two decades ago.
Meanwhile, however, Californians continued to demand a high level of
services from their medium level of taxes.
Here's what's happened: The eroded tax base affects more than
government "fat." The erosion strips away the muscle and bone of the
state's public sector: schools, health care, transportation, even
police and fire services.
The state has been operating in survival mode, fending off disasters,
lacking the capacity to look to the future. Local governments are
powerless to do anything about all this, because Prop. 13 eliminated
their ability to raise revenues.
A key question: How much tax revenue has the public sector lost since
Prop. 13? The state's Legislative Analyst calculated the cumulative
tax cuts from 1977-78 to 1988-89 at nearly 190 billion, an average of
14.5 billion per year. (About the size of last year's deficit.) Now,
these are big numbers, vast numbers, and would probably not carry
across to California's bottom line if Prop. 13 had never existed.
Still, the calculation is a good way to look at why we've been missing
what we've been missing.
Meanwhile, contrary to what many of the state's politicians would like
us to believe, polls taken in spring of 1991 (with the recession
already in swing) showed that voters expected tax increases, opposed
tax cuts that hurt the poor, and were concerned primarily about the
fairness of the distribution of the burden in terms of spending and
taxing. (Actually, voters have been ahead of their elected reps for
some years with regard to taxing and spending.
Voters approved a number of tax increases in 1988, a 25-cent-per-pack
increase for cigarettes and Prop. 98, guaranteeing a base level of
funding for education.)
Anyway, voter revolt or no, the state's citizens now appear more than
willing to tax themselves for specific purposes in order to gain
GO AHEAD, BLAME THE VICTIM
So what are our state's feckless leaders doing in the face of all
these problems, in the wake of an eroding tax base? Not much. Is it
Wilson's fault that he came into power when California's bills came
due? Not really. But now, instead of facing the music, the governor's
shifted into a blame-the-victim mentality that completely misses the
Despite the fact that public assistance to poor families and children
constitutes only 5% of the state's general fund, suddenly, to hear
Pete tell it, the state's mega-list of problems can all be blamed on
lax welfare mothers and wild-eyed immigrants.
He's started a cynical new movement and launched the "Taxpayers
Protection Act," which will come before California voters in a
referendum in November. The act, which seeks to cut payments to
welfare mothers by up to 25%, will put the politically volatile
"welfare" issue at stage center during a time when both California
Senate seats will be up for grabs. (In fact, some are making the
prediction that California could prompt a national anti-welfare
movement as potent as the anti-tax movement it set off with Prop. 13.)
Instead of honestly addressing the state's complex problems, an
eroding tax base and flawed infrastructure Wilson goes after the easy
target, trying to convince California that it has become a welfare
magnet where generous benefits draw poor people from other states
(that's with our current welfare stipend of 663 a month for a mom with
two kids, plus food stamps and MediCal).
While it is true that California maintains a relatively high level of
public welfare spending (we rank 12th in the nation), studies indicate
that real benefits have fallen since 1978. The state's high housing
costs (where most of the welfare checks go) account for a lot of that.
Plus, the increase in California's caseload, 20% between 1988 and
1991, isn't unique. It reflects what's happening in the country due to
the economic downturn.
Sacramento Bee columnist Peter Schrag recently took Pete to task for
evoking the "California as welfare magnet" idea when there's very
little evidence to back it up. Schrag's argument: Only 7% of the new
beneficiaries on the state's rolls lived in some other state in the
year before they became welfare clients in California. Less than 3.5%
of them were on welfare in the months before they arrived here.
So why does Wilson come out swinging against welfare mothers instead
of addressing the state's real problems? Perhaps because Pete has
plunged faster in the polls during his first year as governor than any
of his predecessors did during their entire administrations.
What better quick fix for a political career than to exploit the most
explosive and divisive issue of the day - welfare - and run with it?
All the sadder for California.
Last year, Wilson spent his January speech stumping for California to
move from "reaction and remedy to anticipation and prevention."
Sounded good. But living up to the 1991 "anticipation and prevention"
motto is not exactly what Pete's path looks like for 1992.
Is it too late to halt the decay? Can the state legislature,
California's Theater of the Absurd, ever lead us back toward becoming
a national leader in education, health care and quality of life?
Unknown. But attention must be paid. A battle must be joined, one that
CREATES a tax system that works and invests in an education system
worthy of a state that seeks to be a first-rate economic power. Also
needed? A refusal by the California public to equate the failure of
its government with the failure of its people.
The following agencies and groups provided much of the information in
this article: California Tomorrow, the Sierra Club of California, the
Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the State Department of
Education, the California Tax Reform Association, the New California
Alliance, Health Access, California Policy Seminar, Children Now and
PACE, Policy Analysis for California Education.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank