Politicians face a perpetual conflict between what’s expedient at the moment and what they should do for the long-term.
The tendency, unfortunately, is for expediency to prevail, thus worsening longer-term consequences.
A very good example is the sequence of events that preceded Proposition 6, a November ballot measure to repeal the package of fuel taxes and automotive fees enacted by the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017.
The $5-plus billion per year that the package would generate for road repairs and other transportation improvements would partially offset decades of neglecting our vital transportation infrastructure.
The state amassed an enormous backlog of deferred maintenance as politicians ignored warnings from transportation officials about decaying conditions, unwilling or unable to gradually increase user taxes and fees to meet the needs of an aging and heavily used highway and road system. Thus, when the Capitol finally acted, it was a heavy hit on motorists’ wallets.
An even more graphic example is what happened in 2017 to Oroville Dam on the Feather River, the centerpiece of the state’s massive water distribution system.
The dam’s main spillway, although constructed of concrete, crumbled as water was released to relieve pressure from heavy rains. When releases were shifted to an auxiliary spillway, which was basically dirt, it also deteriorated rapidly.
With the dam itself threatened, a quarter-million people living along the Feather were forced to evacuate.
The state had been warned about both a lack of maintenance on the main spillway and the dangerously weak auxiliary spillway, but failed to do what was needed.
The bill for repairing the dam is now over $1 billion and climbing – much, much more than what it would have cost to have done what was needed years earlier.
The state wants the federal government to pay much of the bill on the fictitious assertion that it was a weather-caused incident, but the post-crisis engineering studies tell us that it was wholly caused by human – meaning political – neglect.
The Sacramento Unified School District offers us another example of how expediency can backfire.
Late last year, the district’s teachers were threatening to strike for higher pay, and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg intervened, mediating a new contract that averted the strike and gave teachers an 11 percent raise.
Later, it emerged that the money for the contract’s salary increases would come from a reserve that the district had set aside to pay for rapidly increasing payments to the State Teachers Retirement System. Brown and the Legislature had required higher payments from school districts to cover the system’s huge “unfunded liability” for teacher pensions.
Sacramento County’s school superintendent, David Gordon, who oversees local school district budgets, looked askance at tapping dedicated reserves for new salaries and warned SUSD several times that its budget was faulty. Finally, in August, Gordon formally disapproved the 2018-19 budget.
The result is a full-blown financial crisis born of political expediency. The district must now redo its budget and deal with a teacher union contract it cannot afford.
“We tried to warn them over and over,” Gordon told the Sacramento Bee. Yes, just as transportation officials warned about the deterioration of the state’s highways and water officials were warned about Oroville Dam’s deficiencies.
There are consequences when politicians and other officials take the easy way out, rather than confronting reality and making the hard decisions it requires.
This story was updated Sept. 19.