When I first moved to California from Ohio in the 1990s, I spotted a postcard in a gift shop that noted the state’s four seasons: wildfires, mudslides, earthquakes and riots. The postcard wasn’t entirely wrong. Outside of drought years, the state does suffer through a regular cycle of fires, slides and earthquakes, although the riots aren’t actually a seasonal thing. Californians are accustomed to the state’s weather disasters the same way a Kansan is accustomed to tornado drills.
Currently, Southern California is ablaze. Not long ago, out-of-control wildfires consumed a large portion of the Napa Valley, tragically destroying about 5 percent of the region’s housing stock and killing dozens of people. I once had to flee a raging wildfire – and the experience is far from pleasant. During last year’s floods, we were packed and ready to go while hoping the aging levee system held near my little ranch downstream from the state’s last wild river.
It did, but tens of thousands of people living below Oroville dam were evacuated. It was scary watching news reports of a collapsing spillway at the nation’s largest earthen dam. Had the dam failed, the entire Gold Rush city and several others would have been flushed down the river, with little left in its wake, including a historic home I own there. It’s a disturbing feeling to have one’s life and investments dependent on the condition of the state’s crumbling infrastructure.
Droughts and torrential rains cannot be helped, but the way public-policy makers deal with them certainly can be changed. Unfortunately, the state’s entire array of public services is pretty much in the condition one would expect from government-run enterprises, where the main priority remains boosting the pay and benefit packages of the people who work for those agencies. When things go awry, officials grab more money — but nothing ever improves.
In my Spectator column last week, I detailed the condition of California’s public schools where, according to a new lawsuit filed against state education officials, there are classes “where around half the students don’t have basic reading skills, examples of fifth graders taught using kindergarten materials, and teachers who ‘are forced to rely on audio and video content to provide students access to other subjects.’” Never mind that the 43 percent of the state’s general-fund budget is earmarked for K-14 education – and spending keeps going up.
This week, the Sacramento Bee published an analysis of the condition of the state’s “high-hazard” dams, which are classified that way because of the enormous risks they pose to people living downstream from them. The Bee did an extensive analysis and reported the following: “Cracked concrete. Plugged drains. Unchecked tree and brush growth. Broken outlet valves. These are some of the problems that have gone uncorrected for years at California dams in spite of being flagged repeatedly by inspectors from the state Department of Water Resources.”
The “uncorrected for years” portion should offer a clue about the state’s priorities. Some conservatives have rightly jumped on the priorities issue, especially given the governor’s focus on building a high-speed rail system, a twin tunnels project in the Delta and various climate-change-related programs. One column even called for a special session to divert more money to firefighting.
The governor’s and Democratic Legislature’s priorities are indeed off. But firefighting is no different than any other government program. When problems arise, government officials cry poormouth and demand more money. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, is an enormously wasteful agency. If Brown and the Legislature did divert more of the general fund to firefighting, I doubt the extra revenues would change much.
As I reported for the Spectator last year following a variety of scandals at the agency, “An official California firefighter survey from 2014 shows the average total compensation for Cal Fire employees ranging from $133,000 to $190,000. Firefighters in surveyed county and city departments receive packages from $172,000 to $266,000. They work an average of 125 to 156 days a year and are paid for sleeping. They receive the ‘3 percent at 50’ formula that lets them retire with 90 percent of their final years’ pay at age 50 — plus those spiking gimmicks that drive up their pension payouts.”
The agency squanders the money it has on excessive compensation packages, then wonders why it has so little money — and relies so heavily on inmates to provide manual labor during these fires. Meanwhile, pension costs are consuming local and state budgets and the Brown administration has done little about it, beyond filing a useful brief in a recent court case that could help cities rollback these quickly escalating costs. Outsourcing always is a verboten topic in the Legislature given the control that the public-employee unions exert.
Yes, California has seasonal problems with fires, mudslides, earthquakes and the like. But it’s not like those things are unexpected. The real problem — as the newspaper report on dams makes clear — is that the state government has misplaced priorities. Of course, that is the very nature of government. It always operates mainly for the benefit of those who work for it. California simply is further down the road than other states toward the ending of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Anything government handles ultimately will be mired in waste and failure.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.