My neighbors and I just survived a week of flood dangers, as something called an “atmospheric river” led to massive rains throughout northern California. The warmth of the rain in the Sierra Nevada melted a good bit of the snowpack, causing water to rush down the mountains and inundate those of us in the Central Valley.
My “rural hamlet,” as the Sacramento Bee calls it, comprises low-lying grazing land, southeast of the Sacramento metropolitan area. We’re used to watching our pastures occasionally turn into wetlands. But this year, our home’s fate — and the lives of my herd of Nubian goats, and our neighbors’ horses, cows and sheep — rested entirely on the strength of some aged earthen levees, which struggled to hold back the Cosumnes River.
The levees held, but it was disconcerting watching the frantic last-minute efforts of local contractors and farmers to shore up levee “boils” and stuff breaches with truckloads of sandbags. It’s no one’s fault but my own that I live on an acreage a half-mile from California’s only undammed major river. But the week’s tribulations put into perspective Gov. Jerry Brown’s news conference Tuesday morning at the Capitol announcing his new budget.
I tried to get there, but was turned back by officials blocking the main bridge over the river. That’s not what turned my thoughts to the governor, who until recently was using the state’s drought to call for more draconian measures to fight climate change. Fear of drought has washed away, despite the insistence of water officials desperate to continue a sense of crisis. The state’s dams — at least the ones officials aren’t emptying to save a few fish — are filling up fast. Some regions have so much water they don’t know what to do with it.
The drought — and the floods — brought to mind the same problem that Brown danced around during his presser. California has a massive infrastructure problem. Our local levees have received some upgrading over the last few years, but huge swaths of this supposedly modern state are dependent on an antiquated system of flood control. The state (and Oregon and the feds) is more interested in leveling dams (in part to save some fish populations) than building new ones.
Other states plan for future growth with impressive infrastructure projects, while California neglects its legacy — and virtually every new project must navigate decades of CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) lawsuits and environmental impact reports.
California’s system of freeways and bridges is routinely ranked among the worst in the nation. My recent trip to San Jose — a mere 110 miles away — took three and a half excruciating hours. Author Victor Davis Hanson wrote in October about California’s “Highway of Death,” which was recently ranked by a travel site as the deadliest highway in the country. That’s California State Route 99, which connects the cities of the Central Valley from south of Bakersfield to Red Bluff. It is my main thoroughfare. Hanson’s description is no exaggeration.
On Tuesday, Brown was true to form. Every year, he gives a “conservative” budget spiel that annoys the state’s free-spending Democratic legislators and reassures Republicans and the state’s business community. The governor warns about the likelihood of an economic downturn. He pointed to a deficit, and proposed some budget trims to deal with it. He shows charts confirming the state has more down years than up years.
On Tuesday, Brown warned about major unfunded liabilities and other debts and talks about possible losses of federal funds under the incoming administration. He says he wants to keep a lid on creating new programs and assure an adequate rainy-day fund to weather coming economic storms.
Great. But then he releases a budget that includes record levels of spending and throws lots more money at programs desperately in need of reform . He gives the public-sector unions much of what they want. He doesn’t go nearly as far as fellow Democrats would like, but he refuses to tackle California’s overly progressive tax system that depends on the success of a tiny portion of the population to fund the bulk of the state’s programs.
While funding many of the majority party’s priorities — from welfare programs to raises for public employees to efforts to battle climate change — he leaves insufficient resources to deal with the nuts-and-bolts of roads and freeways and water systems. Instead of making this a priority, he shortchanges it and calls for the public to support increased taxes and fees to pay for desperately needed projects.
California’s gas taxes of 57 cents a gallon already are the fourth-highest in the nation, according to a statement from Orange County Sen. John Moorlach, who is a GOP point man on fiscal matters. Furthermore, California spends three times the national average on road maintenance per mile. As the state’s gas tax revenue has grown, its road spending has remained stagnant, the statement explains. Moorlach calls the governor’s approach toward infrastructure “tacky,” in that he uses its underfunding as a means to arm-twist Californians into raising taxes despite the already high rates and low bang for the buck.
The state auditor has pointed to glaring inefficiencies at the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), an agency with many employees who gather their pay and pensions but have little to do. Brown, a close ally of the public-employee unions, doesn’t try to get rid of the dead weight or further stretch the state’s dollars. Instead, he leverages the pothole-pocked highways and crumbling levees to raise taxes.
In past years, Brown has tried the same “Washington Monument” strategy. That’s when the federal government faces a supposed shutdown and instead of, say, actually shutting itself down, it shuts down tourist attractions. It’s not about saving a few pennies, but about annoying the citizenry to create pressure for more spending. Brown has previously underfunded infrastructure and declared the budget balanced. Then he called a special session to seek higher taxes to pay for roads, etc.
California Democrats now have supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature, which means legislators are going to be pushing for more social-service spending. Infrastructure will get short-shrift again. In the view of some environmental activists and legislators, new infrastructure is a bad thing, anyway. It allows for population growth, which despoils the natural environment. Not every Democrat thinks that way, but it’s a strong undercurrent.
“When will the governor actually make fixing roads a budget priority?” Sen. Moorlach asked, in his post-budget statement. He knows the answer: Never. Nor will levees and water storages be a budget priority, under the current leadership. That means that Californians should expect growing congestion, increasingly dangerous freeways, and an endless risk of flooding for those of us dependent on an old and inadequate levee system.