Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and a former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Reach Whalen at whalenoped@gmail.com.

Viewpoints: Fact-finding trips the Legislature should take

Published: Friday, Mar. 15, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 11A
Last Modified: Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013 - 9:03 pm

Last week, with modest fanfare and an immodest lack of concern for saving taxpayers a few bucks, a delegation of California state senators took a two-day field trip to Long Beach to discuss the merits of "linked learning" – blending academic and technology curricula to better prepare students for a job in the "information age."

Ordinarily, you'd count me among the first to applaud the news of California's elected class getting the heck out of Dodge. Each day away from Sacramento is one less day lawmakers can embarrass what's left of the state's reputation by micromanaging, as they did last year, such flashpoints as day care snack regulation and whether acupuncturists deserve the honorific of "doctor."

In fact, limited-government fans might be missing an opportunity here. The senatorial delegation's two days in Long Beach reportedly added up to a $27,000 cost to taxpayers. So I ask: If your greatest fear for California's future is progressive creep, which is the better investment: $1 million on Sacramento lobbyists, as one oil concern did in 2012, or using that sum to keep legislators sequestered in Long Beach for the better part of 11 weeks?

There's a legitimate concern about this self-described "policy conference": It's called tone-deafness. California's hardly out of the fiscal ICU – with February state revenue coming in $1.8 million below the Brown administration's estimate. It's anyone's guess if this summer will bring budget lollipops or bone-sawing. While $27,000 is a mere pittance by Capitol standards – about one-tenth of the base budget each lawmaker receives – it's well beyond what the average California family will spend on spring break, assuming they're not on "staycation." Want to show taxpayers you feel their pain? Save a few bucks by staying in Sacramento and Skyping.

Meanwhile, if our legislators insist on more intelligence gathering, I'd suggest an itinerary that's much closer to the state Capitol. There's no need for plane tickets – a couple of Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation buses should suffice.

Our first stop: UC Berkeley. Term-limited politicians might want to talk to graduating policy-sci majors about a shared concern – job prospects. According to Bright.com, a San Francisco-based employment site, political science is the least desirable major in the eyes of California employers – along with journalism, biology, biochemistry and, curiously, business. On the other end of the hiring spectrum: electrical and civil engineering, computer science, medical technology and architecture. If the justification for Long Beach was to highlight a practical path for learning, it behooves lawmakers to find out if UC Berkeley and the state public universities likewise offer an approach and a curriculum in line with the modern economy.

Our next stop: Oakland. If our delegation wants to visit with the city's mayor, Jean Quan, it's safer to go to her office – 63 homeowners in the mayor's neighborhood have hired private security to watch their homes during burglary-rich daylight hours. Oakland's drowning in crime – a 22 percent increase in homicides, 20 percent more rapes and a 46 percent spike in burglaries over the past year. And there's the spiritual crisis of inner-city fatherlessness. Are the Legislature and the governor, a former Oakland mayor himself, bystanders or problem-solvers in this California socio-tragedy?

Our third stop: Modesto. Pardon the bumpy ride – according to the California League of Cities, the state is spending less than what's needed to keep streets in their current condition. Why Modesto? Nearly 7,000 foreclosure filings in 2012 earned it the fifth spot on Forbes' list of America's "most miserable" cities (the ride back to Sacramento will take you through Stockton, which placed eighth). Modesto – towns across the Central Valley, for that matter – epitomizes the "other," non-coastal California that's lagging in the supposed recovery – a 15 percent unemployment rate, 23.5 percent poverty rate (50 percent above the national average) and a local economy that's over-reliant upon agriculture. Where's the Sacramento plan for making the words on the city's arch – "water, wealth, contentment, health" – a reality, not a slogan?

If lawmakers are interested, it's easy to cook plenty of discovery tours that pose plenty of unanswered questions. Or our fearless leaders can play it safe, as they did in Long Beach, and merely second ideas known to be working.

One last note about Long Beach: It's also home to the Queen Mary. That great ship arrived in California in 1967, the same year California began its experiment with a full-time Legislature.

What the two have in common: Both keep on letting down voters by sidestepping the state's greatest challenges, and California legislators might discover what it is to wind up a mothballed relic of the past.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and a former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Reach Whalen at whalenoped@gmail.com.

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