Budget blues

A boy, a dog and a lieutenant governor

READY TO RUMBLE?<br>Opposition to cuts in higher education brought Lt. Gov. John Garamendi to Chico, and his ambition to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor wasn’t discussed, but who could doubt it was there?

Opposition to cuts in higher education brought Lt. Gov. John Garamendi to Chico, and his ambition to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor wasn’t discussed, but who could doubt it was there?

Photo By Karen O'Neill

If you showed pictures of California’s governor and lieutenant governor to someone who’d been in a coma for the past three decades, and you asked that person to identify which of the two men had first gained public notoriety as a movie star, it’s a dead certainty that person would pick John Garamendi, the lieutenant governor.

He looks like one of the Baldwin brothers: tall, nicely coiffed, and possessed of matinee-idol good looks. And he’s a big guy, taller than Governor Schwarzenegger, with hands the size of catcher’s mitts. If the political battles between the Republican governor and the Democratic lieutenant governor ever became physical, the smart money would be on Garamendi, despite Schwarzenegger’s mystique as one of the very few state governors who have been marketed as an action figure.

The lieutenant governor was on the Chico State University campus Tuesday (April 29), engaged in one of those political battles so perennially fought that they barely seem newsworthy any longer. Garamendi was in town on a campaign tour against Governor Schwarzenegger’s proposed cuts to the state’s education budget.

When Republicans want to cut budgets and Democrats want to defend against cuts in educational spending, that’s not really news. And when the Democratic lieutenant governor might be harboring ambitions to move up a notch in the next gubernatorial election, it’s really not news to see him flanked by representatives of the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers.

And it’s no surprise to find Chico State President Paul Zingg also heading up the list of speakers gathered to help the lieutenant governor make the case against cuts to education. Of Garamendi, President Zingg said: He speaks his mind, speaks it forcefully, and people listen.

And Garamendi did speak forcefully, though there weren’t many listening to him. The crowd numbered fewer than a hundred, including those students who were merely making their way to and from classes across Chico State’s Free Speech Area. If some of those passing students cocked an ear, they might have heard the second-highest official in the state say: “There is no guarantee that tomorrow will be as vibrant and wealthy as it is today. If you want to grow your economy, you must have the best-educated workforce.”

But budget cuts don’t pave the way to that result, according to Garamendi, who continued: “We are starving the educational system, and we’ve forgotten the importance of education. We have to decide if we are willing to invest in the intellectual infrastructure. Every businessman and every farmer in Butte County must come to understand that their futures depend on the health of the educational system.”

The rhetoric was boilerplate, but the concerns were genuine.

Off to Garamendi’s right, eight Chico State Young Republicans stood with placards that read, “Money for classrooms, not administrators,” and “Democrats and unions are killing our schools,” and “Education reform, not tax increases.”

Back at the podium, one of their professors rotated up to the microphone to say that California, once a leader in education, now ranks 46th among the 50 states in per-student educational spending. With proposed and projected budget cuts to education running into the billions, that ranking isn’t likely to improve.

These cuts, Garamendi said, will shut the door on thousands of California students, and four years from now their absence will be felt in nursing, firefighting, and a range of vital and necessary jobs. This is a watershed moment. Education is not just a public good, he concluded, but a private benefit to everyone.

No real news was generated at the gathering, though all the local media turned up to note the visit—scribblers and photographers assembled for an event staged largely for their benefit. A few inches of newsprint, a 10-second sound bite, a hoped-for instant of the distracted public’s attention.

One of the students in attendance brought her dog, an irresistible pooch named Pickles. The dog did not bite the lieutenant governor, and the lieutenant governor did not bite the dog. That would have been news. What is not news are attempts by some politicians to balance budgets by cutting state services, and efforts by other politicians to block those cuts.

As he was leaving, Garamendi took a moment to speak with the young son of one of the professors who had shared the podium with him. The boy beamed, and Garamendi gave him his full attention and a generous few moments of his time, though people of voting age were waiting.

In that genuine moment, the lieutenant governor’s concerns about the future of California education were transformed from an abstract political question into the face of a beaming boy who is destined to live out that future.

More than any of the words spoken or entreaties made, Garamendi’s moment with that boy was the real news, and the real significance, of the day.