Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Half-a-loaf solutions fall short

Roofer Michal Swiderski works on putting in a new roof of his home in the Panorama City section of Los Angeles on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015. While drought-plagued California is eager for rain, the forecast of a potentially strong El Nino event has communities clearing out debris basins, and urging residents to stock up on emergency supplies and even talking about how a deluge could affect the 50th Super Bowl. Roofers, on the other hand, are seeing an uptick in business as homeowners ready for the prospect of downpours after four years of dry weather.
Roofer Michal Swiderski works on putting in a new roof of his home in the Panorama City section of Los Angeles on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015. While drought-plagued California is eager for rain, the forecast of a potentially strong El Nino event has communities clearing out debris basins, and urging residents to stock up on emergency supplies and even talking about how a deluge could affect the 50th Super Bowl. Roofers, on the other hand, are seeing an uptick in business as homeowners ready for the prospect of downpours after four years of dry weather. The Associated Press

Were the El Niño phenomenon to actually generate copious rainstorms in California, it could create a dilemma for homeowners with elderly roofs – patch the leaks or spend big bucks for a new roof.

California politics present similar choices.

The state’s extraordinarily complex socioeconomic matrix makes gathering support for any major policy decision extraordinarily difficult. Our politicians’ tendency, therefore, is to temporarily patch problems as they arise and then move on.

We’ve seen lots of patchwork politics in recent years.

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democrat Gov. Jerry Brown have taken swipes at such issues as unbalanced state budgets, infrastructure deterioration, public pension deficits, transportation congestion, water supply and K-12 education, settling for what an unfocused, pettifogging Legislature would accept rather than going all out to truly fix the problems.

Are such “solutions” really better than doing nothing at all? Yes, sometimes. But they also carry downside risks that have become increasingly evident.

One is that they often just don’t work and merely postpone the day of reckoning.

Severe drought struck the state four decades ago. Since then, California has spent untold billions of dollars on supposedly addressing its severe imbalance between water supply and demand. But we never really did anything concrete, leaving us extremely vulnerable when severe drought struck again.

Another downside is that procrastinating fixes provides politicians with excuses. They can – and often do – check it off their to-do lists, telling the voting and taxpaying public that they’ve done their duty diligently, but knowing very well that they’ve merely, in a phrase often used by Schwarzenegger, kicked the can down the road to their successors.

Schwarzenegger was particularly prone to vainglorious claims of achievement. Remember his claim to have “cut up the credit cards”?

A current example of what one might call half-a-loafism is Brown’s plan for a backlog of long-overdue highway maintenance and repairs he pegged at $59 billion in his January inaugural address.

His administration, mindful of stubborn (and wrong-headed) Republican resistance to new highway taxes, crafted a plan it says would raise $37 billion over 10 years through a combination of new auto fees, fuel taxes, diversion of funds from other areas and “efficiencies.”

It would, however, also bow to demands of local government by giving them half of the money, leaving just $17.4 billion to cover the $59 billion shortfall Brown cited.

Brown aides defend it as being the most that might gain legislative approval and say it would fix the worst problems – i.e., patch the leaky roof – but its prospects of passage are poor.

Even were it to be approved, however, it would be just another half-hearted swipe at a very big problem, allowing Brown to check it off his bucket list and slough an even worse situation onto the next governor.

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