HANSON: Accounting for California’s suicide

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COMMENTARY:

What went wrong in California? I think we can all agree on at least three observations.

First, California is by nature the most richly endowed region in the world. Nowhere else is there so much fertile land, watered by gravity-fed winter runoff from the majestic Sierra. California has ample supplies of oil and natural gas. Millions of acres of timber abound in its coastal and mountain forests. Temperate climate and weather allow outdoor activity almost year round. The coastline is more than 1,300 miles long - with two of the great natural ports of the world at Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay.

Second, prior can-do generations of Californians created an unparalleled infrastructure of dams, canals and hydroelectric generation that once provided the state with ample energy, irrigation and recreation. Its three-tier higher education system - 110 junior colleges, 23 state universities, and 10 University of California campuses - once ensured a literate populace.

We associate Hollywood with the world’s motion picture industry. Napa Valley tops the wines of France. The Silicon Valley fueled the high-tech revolution that gave us Apple, Google, Hewitt-Packard, Intel and Yahoo. Millions of tourists each year flock to Disneyland, Death Valley, Kings Canyon, Lake Tahoe, San Francisco and Yosemite.

California remains America’s richest farming state, leading the nation in fresh fruit, vegetable, nut and dairy production. In other words, the present generation enjoyed quite a head start on their lives through the work and investment of often forgotten predecessors.

The final observation we can agree on is that something has gone drastically wrong in the state in the last two decades.

California managed to achieve all at once the nation’s highest sales and income tax rates - and yet also the largest annual state deficit. So far under Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tenure, state spending grew 34.9 percent, well beyond inflation and population that increased only 21.5 percent. And yet the governor often prevented the state Legislature from spending even more it didn’t have.

The budgets of Medi-Cal, the state-run health program for the poor, are out of control. Prison costs increased about 50 percent in less than a decade, and now claim almost 10 percent of state spending - almost as much as higher education.

The state is in its third year of drought. Billions of dollars of agricultural production are threatened by water cutoffs. Yet California hasn’t build a major dam or canal in years.

Biannual state proposition initiatives, often put on the ballot by narrow special interests, allowed voters to vote for additional entitlements and benefits without providing the money to pay for them. Yet Californians are not an informed electorate: the state’s mediocre high schools have 30 percent dropout rates.

More than half a million aliens are caught each year trying to enter California’s southern border illegally. Some estimates put illegal alien state residents at 3 million, a population that may cost the state’s taxpayers more than $13 billion per year for services.

California has the worst credit rating in the nation. It has the fourth-highest unemployment rate and the second-highest home foreclosure rate, thanks to enormously inflated prices due in part to complicated building regulations, high labor costs, and often Byzantine land-use restrictions. California’s net state-to-state migration loss was higher than every other state. Most reports suggest that those leaving the state are far more highly educated than those entering it.

If we can agree that Californians have somehow squandered a rich natural and inherited wealth, what were the root causes of this collective suicide?

Critics disagree. Some cite expanding but inefficient state government, out-of-control state pensions and oppressive taxes. Or is the problem costly prisons and astronomical rates of incarceration, illegal immigration, unchecked welfare, and oppressive regulation and environmental restrictions?

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