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For new Legislature’s members, the tasks are daunting

Most candidates for the state Legislature – and I was no exception – say they’re ready to “hit the ground running on Day 1.”
Rarely, however, do they get to prove it.

For this year’s incoming Assembly members, it was no hollow boast. Just a couple of weeks after our swearing in, we were on the green-carpeted floor of the Assembly Chamber, voting to give some awfully strong medicine to a state in trouble.

As many of my new colleagues pointed out, none of us went to Sacramento to cut spending for education or public safety. None wanted to reduce the meager payments that go to the elderly, blind and disabled. None wanted to raise taxes when unemployment is high and money is hard to come by. But unless we do, we will literally run out of cash and be too broke even to borrow.

One Capitol old-timer, as if to apologize, offered, “This is a heck of a way to treat the new members.”

The usual cycle allows a few months to get the feel of the place before any real action begins.

We don’t have that luxury this year. And I don’t need anyone to apologize for that. This is not a question of niceties. This is a question of survival.

These are not ordinary times. Yes, California has long history of deficits and surpluses. The old debate over revenue and expenditure, over taxes and cuts, goes on. But this crisis is not the result of partisan strife or misguided policy. If it were, we would be here alone. But we’re not. In fact, the National Conference of State Legislatures recently reported that as a percentage of overall state budgets, California’s meltdown is third worst, following Arizona and New York.

And the deficit continues to grow, from an estimated $28 billion over the next year and a half, to $41 billion or more. As the international recession continues, it may get even worse.

Yes, the Obama Administration will likely send us money for infrastructure projects. But the cruel irony is that the little-known Pooled Money Investment Board has just frozen our infrastructure spending, halting hundreds of projects. And most federal highway funds rely on state matching money.

Without a quick fix, California will soon be broke, issuing IOUs instead of paying its bills.

That’s why some of my first votes in Sacramento were to reduce spending and increase revenue. There are those who say cut, cut, cut; but you can’t cut $41 billion without closing schools, increasing class sizes, abandoning our university system, and releasing an untold number of inmates. Even our governor had no problem with our revenue plans – his objections are focused on how much environmental protection we should sacrifice to encourage construction projects. But that ignores the fact that without quick action, we won’t be able to build anything — no matter how loose the standards.

This is not the same old problem; the same old arguments won’t suffice.

As someone with a psychology background, I like to say, “it’s all about changing behaviors.” The first time I rose to speak on the floor, I asked my colleagues from both parties, “what behaviors are we ourselves willing to change?”

Without a change in dialogue or direction, we will remain mired, stalled to inaction during a time of global economic crisis that cannot be ignored.

Fortunately, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass and the Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg have made clear they won’t be held hostage to the past. They won’t be bound by the old pick-‘em-off strategy that gives enormous power to a tiny handful of members. They will find new ways to address the problem.

That’s exactly as it should be. They are doing the right thing. But that’s really just the beginning. The rest of us need to follow suit. We all need to try new approaches.

The economy isn’t likely to turn around overnight. If you want a startling image of a slowing economy, come to my district, to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Take a look at the acres of imported cars, parked on ever-growing patches of land, backed up there because auto dealers can’t sell them. Take a look at the mountains of recycled cardboard ready for shipment to China, but now idled on the docks, since China, facing its own downturn, has no use for it.

The crisis is unprecedented in our lifetimes. It’s new to all of us. So, we all better hit the ground running.


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