Sunday, August 23, 2009

California: Disaster (and Hope?) Ahead

by Chuleenan Natambu

Today I passed by four homeless men during the seven blocks I walked to Walgreen's drugstore to buy the latest issue of Rolling Stone -- the new one featuring Matt Taibbi's health care article. After I walked one block, a young man standing about 20 feet to my left, called out "Do you have a dollar?" "Sorry," I replied. Then he asked if I had a cigarette and I told him I don't smoke. He muttered something else but I kept walking. About three blocks later another young man asked me if I had five cents. A few blocks later I saw still another man who looked to be in his 40s, approach two older women coming out of a local bar. I passed by them as they stopped and one opened her purse to give him something.

When I got to the Walgreen's there was a middle-aged man selling Street Sheets. He's a regular at Walgreen's, always neatly dressed and polite. Sometimes I give him something on my way out or I at least say, "Sorry" or something but today I just hurried into the store. I was feeling a bit depressed by how many panhandlers I'd passed during my short walk. And I just didn't want to face another request for money.

While I live in a neighborhood that has been undergoing extensive gentrification over the past few years my short walk offers a brief glimpse of how bad things are in California and how much worse it will get. As most people know, unless you've been living in a cave and have no access to any media whatsoever, California is in the midst of a horrendous budget crisis. (The deficit was reported at $26.3 billion last month.)

In this week's New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg sums it up nicely: "California, it turns out, is ungovernable. Its public schools, once the nation’s best, are now among the worst. Its transportation and water systems are deteriorating. Its prisons are so overcrowded that it has to turn tens of thousands of felons loose." Yep. The situation is so bad that a panel of federal judges recently ordered that the state must reduce its prison population by 27 percent. Inmates are stacked up in triple bunk beds. You can read all about the recent court order in this New York Times article. The budget crisis has made it more likely that inmates will be released early, but of course Attorney General Jerry Brown will appeal the ruling.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal to release 27,000 inmates early, is opposed by Republicans. Law enforcement and victims' rights groups aren't so keen on the idea either. But what will happen to the folks who are released early? California's unemployment rate reached a high of 12.1 percent in July. How can former inmates possibly get a job interview in this economy? At the rate we're going, you won't be able to walk one block without encountering homeless people every step of the way.

Is there a glimmer of hope? Well, Hertzberg's article mentions that California could have a constitutional convention and start over again. There has been a lot of discussion about it over that past year and with the budget crisis, there is a possibility that it may actually happen. The initial impetus was this San Francisco Chronicle opinion piece by Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council.

A constitutional convention would wipe the slate clean and delegates would write a new state constitution. The current state constitution is an unwieldly document with hundreds of amendments courtesy of our initiative process. Repair California is working on getting an initiative for a constitutional amendment on the ballot for 2010. If that happens, the goal is to hold the constitutional convention in 2011 and then have citizens vote on it in the 2012 election. Perhaps the one good thing that has resulted from this budget fiasco is that people can no longer deny that California's state government is truly broken. And come November 2012, we may indeed be voting for true reform.