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SOS: Save Our State

North Bay politicians make the case for Propositions 57 and 58

By R. V. Scheide

The counties are reeling, the cities are screaming and the consensus among North Bay elected officials is nearly unanimous: if voters fail to approve Propositions 57 and 58 on the March 2 primary election ballot, the "Armageddon cuts" promised by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will decimate government services in the North Bay.

The two propositions comprise the governor's plan to shore up the state's sinking financial ship, which was torpedoed by the 2000-2001 stock market crash and the excessive state spending that accompanied the preceding run-up in equities.

If passed, Proposition 57, the Economic Recovery Bond Act, will permit the state to issue $15 billion in bonds to address California's current budget deficit. However, in order for it to be enacted, voters must also approve Proposition 58, the California Balanced Budget Act.

So far, it's not clear that voters understand the linkage between the two propositions. A Field Poll released Jan. 15 found that statewide 53 percent of likely voters favor Proposition 58, but just 33 percent support Proposition 57. A substantial number of voters, 27 percent, remain undecided on Proposition 57. If the governor is unable to sway enough of them to pass his economic package, local legislators predict disaster.

"It's going to be devastating if the bond doesn't pass," says Diane Miller, Third District Supervisor for Napa County. "I hate to borrow money. I'm not a person who likes to use credit, but dealing with the alternative is too radical. If the worst happens and the bond fails, there are going to have to be major program cuts."

Sixth District Assemblyman Joe Nation, who represents Marin and southern Sonoma counties in the state Legislature, agrees.

"If this does not pass, the situation will be worse," he predicts. Nation strongly supports both propositions, although the size of the $15 billion bond did cause him some concern. But without it, he says, "I think there will be cuts that are horrible across-the-board.

According to supervisor Miller and many of her colleagues in Napa, Sonoma and Marin counties, the cuts, if the propositions fail, will be harsh, as much as 20 percent for some programs. Miller worries that programs which save government money in the long term, such as preschool, substance-abuse-recovery and gang-interdiction programs, will be scrapped in order to balance the budget in the short term. In fact, monies for some programs, such as Napa County's gang task force, have already been cut in the governor's proposed 2004-2005 budget.

"I've been told by the district attorney that those grants are not a part of our future," she says.

"I think people are most concerned about public safety," Nation says.

Seventh District Assemblywoman Pat Wiggins, who represents all of Napa County and parts of Sonoma and Marin counties, was reluctant at first to sign on to the deficit bond issue.

"I don't like the idea of a bond," she says. "You don't get parks, you don't get transportation, you don't get environmental protections. It's basically just buying the state some breathing space." Nevertheless, she supports Propositions 57 and 58 now. If the measures fail, she says, "The collapse and harm that will come to everybody will be horrendous. Somebody you know will be hurt if they don't pass."

On Feb. 4, the Marin County Board of Supervisors endorsed both propositions. While the Napa County Board of Supervisors hasn't publicly endorsed the measures, Miller and Second District Supervisor Mark Luce said the propositions are supported by a majority of the board members. Likewise, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors hasn't publicly endorsed the measures yet, but Fifth District Supervisor Mike Reilly says, "I assume that if it comes before the board, we'll be able to find three or more votes to support it."

"It's probably the only pragmatic thing to do considering the current environment," agreed Sonoma County Third District Supervisor Tim Smith.

Susan Adams, First District Supervisor for Marin County, was one of few local politicians who opposes the propositions. A Democrat and self-described fiscal conservative with a social agenda, she's concerned that the propositions don't tackle the state budget's "big structural problems."

"It's a one-time fix; it doesn't address the structural problems," she says. "I think we should be starting with structural changes first." The Marin County representative for the California State Association of Counties, she recently attended a meeting where she says that the "final vote came down to supporting the bills and holding their noses."

Fairfax mayor Frank Egger, a longtime supporter of progressive causes in Marin and Sonoma counties, also opposes the propositions.

"There's no guarantee local governments are going to be better off if it passes," he says. "There is no guarantee that government services are going to be kept intact. But there is a guarantee that our children and our grandchildren are going to pay the price for this bailout."

Asked why the majority of local elected officials, Democrats and Republicans alike, are supporting the propositions, Egger says, "They're probably scared to death to speak out against it."

As the saying goes, politics makes for strange bedfellows, and for the most part, liberals and conservatives are teaming up to support Propositions 57 and 58.

"We're normally reluctant to support bond measures," says Fred Levin, executive director of the conservative Sonoma County Taxpayers Association. That's because a bond is essentially a tax that citizens have to repay with interest. Still, the association is advising its members to support Propositions 57 and 58.

"We're hoping that this is a one-time event, and that the $15 billion will help the state get back on track," Levin says. "We're not particularly thrilled about it, but as a one-time effort, it's worthwhile."

Meanwhile, the 2004-2005 budget looms, with a projected deficit of $6 billion to $15 billion, according to the California State Legislative Analyst. North Bay politicians are caught between supporting measures they don't necessarily agree with or facing even more draconian cuts to services.

"I would compare Sacramento to a heroin addict," says Sebastopol City Council member Larry Robinson. Like most of the local legislators the Bohemian talked to, Robinson was incensed with the shift of more than $1 billion in property tax from cities and counties to the state in Gov. Schwarzenegger's proposed budget. Still, Robinson feels there's no alternative but to support Propositions 57 and 58.

"Sometimes," he shrugs, "a methadone program is preferable to cold turkey."

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From the February 12-18, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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