California is the Unwilling Star of a Slasher Film
The details of the budget agreement negotiated between the Governor and legislative leaders are emerging, and the overall picture is devastating. Rather than including even modest proposals to raise revenues during the most serious recession since the Great Depression, the "solution" is all about cuts. The situation is no longer a "suspense movie," as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger referred to the negotiations. It now resembles a slasher film -- full of deep and horrifying cuts.
In this latest remake of the classic slasher film Psycho, Janet Leigh's character Marion is played by California. Sure, she's made some mistakes; she's ambitious and perhaps a little naive -- but no one deserves to be cut to shreds. California's children and young adults were early victims, with $6 billion in cuts to K-14 and $3 billion in cuts to higher education reported. Also facing the knife are health and welfare programs. Because so much of the general fund is dedicated to these programs, we could predict their fate during the opening credits of the budget negotiations.
Environmental agencies and programs have survived, although they had to vigorously fend off their attackers. However, the quality of the state's environment will no doubt be left with some serious scars. Several of the proposals that were most damaging to the state's environmental programs were included in the budget deal, including allowing offshore oil drilling and closing dozens of the state's world-famous parks. (A note: these issues are still evolving, as the actual bill language is still being finalized; the following is based on available information.)
Offshore Oil Drilling
Legislative leaders accepted the Schwarzenegger Administration's proposal to override the State Lands Commission's rejection of new offshore oil drilling off the Santa Barbara coast. The Governor's proposal removes the lease authority from the Commission -- which has performed leasing functions in state government for almost a century -- and instead gives it to a committee consisting of the governor's political appointments. The deal allows the approval of a lease despite the fact that there are no guarantees that the billions in alleged revenue for the state budget will be provided by the oil company. In a shocking plot twist, Governor Schwarzenegger's proposal is apparently weaker than the conditions the oil company was willing to accept at the State Lands Commission.
The bottom line: Between 30-50 of the state's parks could be closed as a result of the budget deal. No, the park system didn't lose any vital organs, but it could lose a limb or two.
Governor Schwarzenegger's proposal to cut park funding and close 220 of the state's parks -- 80% of the country's largest state park system -- was one of the proposals that environmental voters opposed most vocally. As a result of this very public push-back, the vast majority of state parks appear to have been spared. However, approximately $70 million of the parks' general fund allocation will be eliminated, with other funding sources backfilling $62 million. The $8 million gap remaining for the Department of Parks and Recreation will likely mean dozens of park closures.
I admit it's hard to see how this story has a happy ending. After all, we are facing a $26 billion shortfall, and no plot device is going to make every audience member happy. But there are still opportunities for our legislative leaders to be heroes and save California's safety net, quality of life and natural beauty from death by a thousand cuts.
Notice that I have yet to say who's playing the villain. And that's because there are too many factors at play here to name just one. The greed and deregulation that led to the current economic crisis. The crippling two-thirds majority requirement for a budget. The warped budget process that results in just five individuals negotiating behind closed doors. The deep-pocketed polluters who leap at every chance to influence a broken process. The legislators who absolutely refuse to consider common-sense proposals to raise revenues in order to truly "share the pain." Just to name a few.
I've never been a fan of horror movies (I'd rather see California in a romantic comedy). For now, please join me in writing a new script for the Golden State's future -- a sequel where the quality of education, public health and safety, and California's natural resources and environmental heritage would win out over knife-wielding psychos.