A great day for nothing

Very little is happening at the Capitol—which means it should be time for big-picture thinking

Greg Lucas' state-politics column Capitol Lowdown appears every other week in SN&R. He also blogs at www.californiascapitol.com.

Compared to the root-hog, bloodlust craziness of the death throes of the legislative session, the White Sepulcher is currently living up to its name. It’s quiet. (Here would be a good place to snidely add that it can never be too quiet, since every day the governor and the Legislature do nothing is a great day for California.)

Except, even though that sentiment has been expressed in this space more than once, the truth is that sometimes shit happens, and stuff needs to be done.

Most of the time, hell yes, it’s far better when lawmakers and statewide elected officials aren’t “making things better,” but again, sometimes, stuff just needs to be done. And when it needs to be done, it’s better to do it in a smart, strategic way. Rather than blundering around half-cocked, or responding to the latest whim of California’s electorate, which makes the audience at the Short-Attention-Span Theater seem focused.

The things that need to be done are the Big Stuff. Long term. Multigenerational. Squaring shoulders and accepting inevitable changes before they pounce and whisk by, leaving our dazed asses in the dust.

Dealing with the Big Stuff first requires some brainstorming and some brain picking. Chronic cogitation. And it’s the relative calm of the late fall of odd-numbered (nonelection) years that’s most conducive to Big Stuff Deep Thought. For lawmakers, there’s no amending of bills or floor sessions until January. The governor must prepare a budget, but he’s got people over at the Department of Finance to do that. Time to pause, to ponder, to languidly gaze at the placid foliage of Capitol Park, mull grandly and throw the ball long.

Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, a Concord Democrat, is limbering up on the sidelines. He wants to create a “poverty caucus,” whose legislative members would presumably focus on putting their caucus out of business. DeSaulnier says his goal is to end poverty in California, the name of the movement established almost 80 years ago by muckraking socialist and gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair. EPIC, as it was known, fizzled with Sinclair’s defeat.

Next year is also the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty declared by President Lyndon B. Johnson. A cursory appraisal indicates that war has been almost as successful as the war waged on drugs. But regardless of past failings, poverty certainly qualifies as Big Stuff.

More California-centric, the $20 billion in bond funds voters approved seven years ago to improve highway and transit systems is spent, the Legislative Analyst’s Office notes in a recent report. Like several other major revenue streams in this state—sales tax in particular—the gas tax is premised on a world that no longer exists.

Even though more Californians are driving—as any commuter will attest—they’re driving less distance, and they’re behind the wheel of increasingly fuel-efficient vehicles. So gas tax revenue is declining. There’s been no increase in the gas tax in 20 years, and, as a bonus, the federal Highway Trust Fund, which supplies California and other states with transportation dollars, has been broke since 2008.

Also on the Big Stuff list is that the number of folks 65 and older will be 20 percent of the population within 15 years. At the same time, Californians younger than 30 believe there’s a higher use than vagrant sleeping accommodations for those book-filled, crumbly old warehouses on prime real estate that are only open every third Thursday during the full moon.

The good thing about thinking is that the only person who can get hurt by it is the one doing the thinking when they realize meeting these challenges is either mind-bendingly difficult or ridiculously simple.