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West Coast Wasteland | The Nation

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West Coast Wasteland

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MATT BLACKHomeless in Fresno: Guillermo Torrez ended up on the streets after he lost his construction job and his family's home was forec

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Sasha Abramsky
Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s...

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In the pretty northern Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, the staff of VMH (formerly Verdugo Mental Health) go to work in a brand-new building. It is elegantly constructed in Spanish colonial style, and when you wander the corridors you can still sniff out that fresh-paint odor coming from some of the cream-colored, plushly carpeted counseling rooms. On the surface, it all looks good. Spend a few hours at the clinic, however, and you realize that there's something grievously amiss. The rooms, even during prime counseling hours, are almost all unoccupied.

VMH has provided counseling and medication to impoverished children and adults since 1957. But in August, shortly after the new facility opened, the clinic lost most of its funding for adult services when the state and county yanked their dollars, triggering huge matching-fund losses from the federal government. Eighty percent of the counseling staff, including nearly all of the site's adult counselors, were laid off. Kids still receive some counseling, but the walls of the rooms in which they are seen by staff are bare--the clinic ran out of funds before it could decorate them--and the doors have paper signs taped to them instead of brass plaques.

Nowadays, VMH's adult clients are treated exclusively with medication. And the indigent mentally ill--whose treatment had been paid for by LA County, which in turn received money from the state--are turned away at the door. Many of them end up sleeping on park benches near the clinic. "These are the chronically mentally ill," says psychologist Janie Strasner glumly, "who will end up being the raving lunatics on the street."

What makes this all the more troubling is that Glendale isn't an outstandingly poor neighborhood, Los Angeles isn't a poor city and California certainly isn't a poor state. And yet something is seriously wrong with the organism that is California. The state's savage budget cuts--$26 billion in 2009, an expected shortfall over the next year that could reach $20 billion--now serve as anti-stimulus to the federal stimulus package. Its basic educational, public safety and social service infrastructure is crumbling. As a self-sustaining political system, as a set of relationships between local and state governments, as a revenue-raising and revenue-spending mechanism, California is deeply damaged. And the impact of that damage is hitting an awful lot of people awfully hard.

The state's unemployment rate stands at more than 12 percent, and in some poorer counties it's in the 25 percent range. In Los Angeles, that number is 12.2 percent. "It boggles the mind," says LA's mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa. "Not since the Depression have we had numbers this bad." To make matters worse, in an attempt to slow the state's fiscal implosion, halfway through 2009 Sacramento forcibly borrowed billions of dollars from city coffers statewide. "They took our community redevelopment dollars that are capital we need to create jobs and housing in this town," the mayor argues.

The network of public universities, long the country's most prestigious state-supported higher education system, is wilting. The state's schools, starved of money from a combination of thirty-year-old local property-tax revolts and the more recent budget implosion, are rapidly sinking into what can only charitably be called mediocrity.

There's a Mad Max feel to daily life in many neighborhoods. The Central Valley has a swath of cities whose home foreclosure rates rank in the top ten in the country. Friends looking to buy a home in a poor part of Sacramento tell me of foreclosed houses stripped of their copper wires, their toilets, their pipes, even their drywall. An ex-student reports visiting homes in which furious foreclosed owners and evicted tenants have urinated and defecated on the carpeting, abandoned pets to starve, left kitchens filled with rotting food. Sure, you can buy these properties for next to nothing, but you'll have to bring in the biohazard squads before you can safely occupy them.

University departments looking to pinch pennies are removing their professors' office phones. Judges in some counties have donated a percentage of their salaries back to the courts so that the courts will have enough money to stay open. And on furlough Fridays, downtown Sacramento--the capital city of the world's eighth-largest economy--is practically a ghost town. The restaurants are empty, the streets quiet. Nobody's at work.

Why this has happened, how the mess can be cleaned up, how big-picture fixes to a discredited political machine can be implemented--well, that's all up for debate. Political consensus is as rare a commodity in California these days as baseball-sized gold nuggets were after the forty-niners had picked the mountains clean. Practically the only thing conservatives and liberals agree on in Sacramento is that the decision-making system has stalled and that the state leadership's ability to implement long-term strategic plans in the face of economic crisis has been corroded in recent years. California, historically the country's most populous, wealthiest, most dynamic state, has become chronically anxious about its future. Its citizens have grown distrustful of those who govern them, increasingly aware that ineptitude is making a bad economic situation worse. Recent polling suggests only 13 percent of voters approve of the job their state legislators are doing.

Some residents want tax reform--though Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's tax reform commission recently issued recommendations that appear, in their chilly reception, to have been stillborn. Others want to tweak term limits; curb the sprawling, open-ended initiative process; introduce open primaries; further cut government services; even hold a constitutional convention to rewrite the basic governing mechanisms of the state. Few, though, deny the storm clouds overhead.

"The outlook for next year and the year after is worse," says veteran California observer and journalist Peter Schrag, over a BLT lunch at a casual-but-chic cafe in the Berkeley foothills. "The stimulus money goes away. The tax increases [passed in February 2009 after weeks of acrimonious debate] expire. If we're up shit creek now, we're going to be further up shit creek two years from now." Since the state, unlike localities, cannot declare bankruptcy, if its tax revenues continue to wilt it will have no choice but to dramatically scale back its spending on big-ticket items such as education, healthcare and prisons. Recognizing these realities, Schwarzenegger recently suggested rewriting the Constitution to ensure that the state never spends less than 10 percent of its general fund on higher education or more than 7 percent on corrections. But he didn't propose limiting what sorts of offenses would trigger a prison term; instead, he suggested cutting costs by wholesale prison privatization--a proposal almost certain to be defeated in the legislature.

Schrag looks out on his state and sees an eroding sense of common destiny--a great experiment gone awry, a place where racial and economic groupings are retreating into their own corners, where the social bonds that give people confidence in their futures are disintegrating. California's disarray is, for him, a psychological crisis as much as an economic one. If things get bad enough, he wonders aloud, "will there be some restoration of the public sense? Is there a point at which people will basically begin to develop a sense that something has to be done? And that could go in various directions. It could go in the direction of a furious backlash against immigrants, or a realization that we better do something else--tax millionaires, oil companies."

Lenny Goldberg, an economist at the left-leaning California Tax Reform Association, believes California's crisis is about a failure of will: the money's there, Goldberg says--even during a recession as deep as the current one, California's is still a nearly $2 trillion economy--but the willingness to access it through a viable tax structure is absent. Since it takes only a bare majority of state legislators to lower taxes but a two-thirds supermajority to increase them--a side provision to Proposition 13, the 1978 ballot initiative better known for limiting property-tax rates--the result, he says disdainfully, is a "roach motel." Once tax loopholes crawl in, they're all but impossible to remove. The GOP in California, long a minority in the legislature, has just enough muscle in Sacramento to hold the budget and tax process hostage to its no-new-taxes agenda.

Not surprisingly, Jon Coupal, the perfectly coiffed Tim Robbins look-alike president of the conservative Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (named after the anti-tax crusader who led the Prop 13 campaign), has a different take. For Coupal, tax increases to fill some of the holes in California's budget "would be a nonstarter." To him, it's all about waste, government inefficiency and a decades-long flirtation with "an entitlement mentality--whether it's healthcare, whether it's a free education. People have lost sight of the one thing government should do as a first priority--it's to preserve liberty." Downsize the state, move core social service functions to the private sector, and California's cascading budget crisis could be controlled.

Betwixt these donkeys and elephants, never the twain shall meet. Moreover, because of an extraordinarily restrictive term-limits law passed by voters in 1990, legislators in Sacramento no longer have the time to develop expertise about how their state works. As a result, few legislators in either party accumulate the confidence born of experience to challenge special interests. As Jim Brulte, a onetime GOP leader in both the State Assembly and Senate and a vocal critic of the restrictions of the term-limits law, explained at the Getting to Reform conference in mid-October, state leaders can never do what redbaiting Nixon did: "go to China." They can't challenge their constituencies to think outside the box.

In the case of the GOP, those interests tend to be rigidly anti-tax but somewhat fuzzy on exactly what programs to cut to balance California's budget. In the case of the Democrats, they tend to favor higher spending but don't necessarily support tax hikes to cover those bills. In the meantime, as momentum for reform slowly builds and voters' anger intensifies, the state continues its slow bleed.

Californians have long wanted to have their cake and eat it too, using the initiative process to mandate generous levels of spending on specific programs but using that same process to limit localities' ability to raise property taxes and state legislators' ability to raise state revenues. The result? California is increasingly reliant on borrowing, increasingly at the mercy of the credit markets and thus increasingly vulnerable to crises such as the seize-up of those credit markets in 2008.

Why does California have the country's lowest bond rating? "Because of our political and fiscal system," Goldberg believes. "We're so tied in knots, the market doesn't believe we can get a solution to our problems. It's the market saying, Your political system is really fucked up."

"Since '78," explains Tim Hodson, executive director of California studies at California State University, Sacramento, "we've developed a political culture that believes you can have world-class public services without having to pay for them. We need to get control of ballot-box budgeting."

Voters recognize the state's dysfunction and the concomitant need for reform. But recent Field Poll data show the electorate to be deeply resistant to the sorts of reforms that would help get the state back on its feet. There's not only no will to modify the residential property tax constraints imposed by Prop 13; the majority also opposes a "split roll" property tax that would allow for commercial properties to be taxed at a higher rate. There's no support for reining in the initiative process or modifying term limits. A clear majority also oppose ending the two-thirds vote requirement needed to raise taxes or pass state budgets. And a majority believes--implausibly, according to almost all fiscal experts who have studied the issue--that the state could plug a $25 billion deficit simply by eliminating government waste and fraud.

Seeing which way the winds are blowing here, ex-governor Jerry Brown, who wants to cap his career by getting elected as governor once more--and who, at least for now, is seen as the front-runner among Democratic hopefuls--has come out in opposition to reforming Prop 13 and in support of a "simpler" (read: "flatter") tax system. On the Republican side, 
former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and other high-profile would-be candidates have come out against any tax increases and any constitutional reforms that would eliminate the two-thirds requirement.

It's a Catch-22: voters know the system is breeding paralysis and needs to be reformed, but as long as the dysfunction continues to send legislators' reputations swirling down the toilet, those same voters are unwilling to cede more power to the legislature or limit their ability to make policy on the hoof via the initiative process. This, in turn, leads gubernatorial candidates to circumscribe their reform ambitions in order to curry favor with a disillusioned electorate. And so the circle of dysfunction-suspicion-dysfunction remains unbroken. "You have to restore voters' trust in government to make good decisions," argues Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project. "They see declining public services and say, 'Why would I give these people more authority?' But until they do, we're going to see cuts in everything from public schools to the DMV."

September 24, the first day of classes at many of the UC campuses, was a cloudless, blazing hot day in the college town of Davis. It was also a day when many classes weren't going to be held. Across the UC system, faculty and students were walking out to protest the cascading series of budget cuts and fee hikes triggered by the state's reducing its commitment to the public universities by many hundreds of millions of dollars.

"Educate! Agitate! Organize!" were emblazoned on many protesters' T-shirts. "Respect the unions, bargain now," read the UPTE CWA 9119 local's banners.

Since Mario Savio set the bar for impromptu student speeches at Berkeley in December 1964, university protests in California have had that certain frisson, that sense that maybe, just maybe, someone else will come along who can speak as eloquently and passionately as he did. It never happens, but that doesn't stop them from trying. A young man who identified himself as a TA in the physics departments told the crowd that students and faculty alike had to stand up and resist. There was, he concluded, power in this teachable moment.

The crowd agreed. Shortly afterward, thousands of them set off on a long march around campus, to the administration building and then to the chancellor's residence. "Whose university? Our university!" they called and responded. "Whose university? Our university!"

Of course, that's only true if the general public agrees--including the 87.5 percent of the state's high school graduates who don't qualify for a University of California education. It's only true if a new consensus can be forged that channels enough tax dollars to the state to keep these vaunted public institutions afloat. And unfortunately, that consensus isn't emerging.

A few weeks after the rolling series of campus protests began, the UC Regents voted to increase student fees by a stunning 32 percent over the next academic year. While they attempted to soften the impact by increasing the number of students who would qualify for financial aid, the public relations impact was disastrous. Across the ten-campus system, students began occupying administrative buildings. Many faculty members, outraged at being asked to take furlough days that cut their salaries by up to 10 percent and at increased teaching loads caused by many lecturers' and TAs' positions being eliminated, joined in the walkouts. At UCLA and Berkeley, huge protests captured the attention of the national media. Meanwhile, UC president Mark Yudof pleaded with legislators to restore more than two-thirds of the $1 billion in lost funding to avoid an implosion of the country's pre-eminent public university system.

Half a state away from Davis, in the working-class, heavily industrial southern Los Angeles suburb of Torrance, tea partyers have taken to demonstrating weekends on the grassy street corner on the southwest side of the civic center. Their main bugbear is the fear of federal tax hikes to fund Obama's social programs. But talk to them--mostly white, mostly old, almost all beneficiaries of Social Security and Medicare, dwellers in a bungalow-land built from the wages doled out by government-funded military industries--and they quickly pivot into a denunciation of state and local tax increases too.

"I think we need to get the government to understand we won't accept new taxes--the federal government. The state needs to listen also," explains 75-year-old Donald Mitchell, sitting by the information table at a recent protest. A retired Hughes Aircraft engineer with a hearing aid in his left ear, a ruddy complexion and thinning, yellowing hair, Mitchell believes there's a power grab under way that is converting the country he loves to socialism. "The government is trying to take over one-sixth of our economy with healthcare, and that gets awfully close to socialism. Forget about the ownership of the banks."

These shock-troop opponents of healthcare reforms are also the most vociferous defenders of Proposition 13, the people who saw their tax rates locked in a generation ago and who are now unwilling to pony up more cash for the benefit of a younger, browner population. They watch Glenn Beck and listen to Rush Limbaugh--or to his virulently right-wing LA variants on The John and Ken Show. They believe big government is bringing down the Republic, and they're all too happy to wave at cars passing along Crenshaw Boulevard a bizarrely adapted US flag--the stripes and a circle of thirteen stars representing the original colonies, inside of which is the Roman numeral II, which stands, I'm told quietly, for the Second Revolution.

On the ground, the effects of this stalemate--one party wedded to big spending, another equally wedded to anti-taxism; one part of the population interested in building infrastructure, another only too happy to retreat further into its privatized world--have been catastrophic.

Mental health clinics are closing, state parks are limiting their admissions hours, county health clinics are shutting their doors, in-home services to the elderly have been decimated. And access to the state's health plan for low-income kids has been restricted--a less draconian option, it must be said, than the one contemplated at the height of the crisis: completely defunding the plan. At one point last summer, friends reported to me in amazement that local playgrounds had padlocked their toilet doors.

Shamefully, as a result of a line-item veto by Schwarzenegger in 2009, domestic violence centers have been all but defunded. In Santa Clarita, an exurb on the edge of Antelope Valley with a growing heroin and meth problem, that meant the loss of $200,000 for the local center; the firing of several counselors responsible for helping the 200-plus clients who came through the doors each year; the replacement of a full-time shelter advocate with three part-time ones; and an inability to pay rent on the down-at-the-heel suite of rooms the center occupied in a low-grade strip mall. Until a local businessman offered the use of one of his buildings a few miles away at below-market rates, the center teetered on the edge of closure.

"It's left us with two full-time staff in the office, including myself," asserts 32-year-old executive director Nicole Shellcroft. "Our clinical director volunteers two days a week to do therapy, and we have one part-time administrator. With two of us in the office, we have five lines that ring. We may miss someone or not be able to provide court accompaniment coverage."

At the same time that staffing has plummeted, the number of desperate people contacting the center for help has grown. Shellcroft and her colleague will answer the doorbell, and there'll be a mom with her kids and their suitcases standing outside, pleading for help in getting into a shelter.

Instead of working to protect the poor and maintain local services during these tough times, the state is punishing localities to cover for its own dysfunction. California's budget crisis "is as big a threat as the bank failures were," argues LA City Council president Eric Garcetti. City politicians, he says, "feel like the guy who knows times are tough; we cut back expenses, sold the car, got an old clunker and stopped going out to dinner. And there's a guy down the street saying, 'My Ferrari's not working. Give me your money.'" The state, Garcetti adds in clarification, is the Ferrari owner.

"I'm aghast at what's happened there [in Sacramento]," Mayor Villaraigosa declares. "The gridlock, the partisanship, the pervasive vitriol, which has prevented us from solving this crisis." LA has a $30 million hole in its housing authority budget and is only able to subsidize rent for one-bedroom apartments these days, no matter the size of the needy family. Because the state took the city's redevelopment dollars, park construction has been put on hold. And severely mentally ill patients around the city are being turned away from clinics because the money simply isn't there to treat them.

"We have a beautiful building and we're on life support," Dr. Steven Hochstadt, director of clinical services at the VMH facility in Glendale, explains. "It's all edifice."

It could serve as an epitaph for California these days: a gorgeous state with a terrific infrastructure built up over the past century, but no money or political will to keep the place running properly.

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