The Nation's Pulse

Lotus Eaters’ Heartburn

California can't afford the happiness it's committed to.

By 4.2.07

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California -- land of eternal youth, sunshine, orange juice, palm trees and cheeky celebrities -- is now a land of heartburn. After supping on a bumper crop of the lotus of good intentions, the Golden State's inhabitants are going through a bad hangover.

Every two years an election rolls around and California's ballot abounds with initiatives (based on voter petitions) and referenda (issues sent by the legislature to the voters). Most of these are of the feel-good variety. Californians like to feel good about life in general, so they tend to vote for these things without looking at the price tag. Last November they voted for enough bond issues to send the state's indebtedness over the $100 billion mark once all the bonds are sold. After all, who could be against highway and bridge improvements, money for school construction, state park improvements? Not long ago, actor Rob Reiner ("Meathead" of "Archie Bunker" fame) promoted a measure to give free pre-schooling to all youngsters. It was set to pass until Reiner illegally used some state commission funds to advertise the scheme and nosy researchers uncovered the fact that 70 percent all preschool age children had parents who could afford to pay for the schooling.

Last week the Public Policy Institute of California released a new poll showing that half of all the state's adults now think economic bad times are on the horizon in the coming 12 months. That's up from 39 percent just two months ago. On the "right track/wrong track" question, 47 percent think California is on the wrong track. That's up from 37 percent two months ago.

Among likely voters, only 30 percent trust the state government to "do the right thing." Legislators and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger can take a bit of consolation from the fact that this number is better than Californians' trust in the federal government, which is at 24 percent.

Pollster Mark Baldassare attributes these gloomy figures to the stock market's yo-yoing up and down, the housing slowdown, stubbornly high gasoline prices and a plethora of news stories about worries over the subprime mortgage market. These may have something to do with it, but Californians need look no further than Sacramento to find most of the troubles.

Part of the negativism is from buyer's remorse (vote now, pay later -- and forever), compounded by the Governator's rosy budget scenario. With flair he unveiled a "balanced" budget in January. I use quotation markets because it is balanced on a set of assumptions about the behavior of the state legislature and federal government that are unlikely to come true. At about that time his trumpeters blew fanfares also over his new universal health care coverage plan. He proudly announced it can be made a reality without new taxes. Instead, physicians and hospitals will have to pay a hefty "fee" based upon their gross revenue. It looks like tax, walks like a tax -- you get the idea.

Meanwhile, the legislature is occupied with a number of bills that will turn the state government into a benevolent uber-nanny. One bill will prohibit parents from spanking children under three years of age. Another would levy fines for pet owners who do not neuter Fido and Tabby. Yet another would prohibit smoking in state parks and on beaches. Another would prohibit grocery stores from using plastic bags. And how's this for rich irony? One bill under discussion would give each newborn child in the state a $500 savings account. Thus, a state that cannot balance its budget and is billions of dollars in hock is going to encourage new parents to teach their children to save by giving them $500.

Not to be outdone, the governor has proposed a five percent pay increase for many on his well-paid staff. Ah well, spend as if there's no tomorrow, and maybe there won't be a tomorrow. No wonder Californians have changed from feel-goods to feel-gloomies.

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About the Author
Peter Hannaford was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. He is a member of the board of the Committee on the Present Danger. His latest book is “Presidential Retreats.”