The $5 billion-plus California shopping list

Suggestions on what to get California this holiday season

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

With a few largely stress-free shopping days left, this is probably a good time to decide what gift to get for California.

It’s tough. Talk about the state that has everything! Set a movie anywhere—Zanzibar or Alpha Centauri—and there’s some corner of California that fits the bill. There’s already 840 miles of coastline. Redwoods. Yosemite. Tahoe. Lassen. Shasta. Sierra Nevada. Mount Whitney. Death Valley. San Francisco. Napa. Santa Monica. UC. CSU. High tech. Biotech. The breadbasket of the Central Valley.

See? And that’s just the obvious stuff. It’s damn difficult finding something California doesn’t have already that constitutes a “real” gift. (The gifts of enforced generosity we’re required to send annually to the Franchise Tax Board don’t count.) A real gift is one that kids and oldsters and everyone in between enjoy equally. Solid. Built to last. Not some schmaltzy intangible like “tolerance”—although God knows we can all use more of that.

There’s no reason to scrimp.According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, expect budget surpluses of $5 billion and more for at least the next four years—absent some stock-market cataclysm or the feds screwing the pooch on the debt ceiling. The analyst and Gov. Jerry “They Call Me Ebenezer” Brown urge spending restraint, retiring debt and socking dough away for the inevitable future financial shitstorm. All of which is totally prudent Groovy Government 101, but slopping out the state’s fiscal pigsty doesn’t exactly ignite the imagination like spanning the Golden Gate.

So, how about carving off a piece of this hefty surplus and bestowing it upon California’s 200-plus state parks? Our parks are valiant attempts to protect what is most unique—and often most fragile—in the Golden State from rapacious, fast-buck buccaneers and shortsighted scum whose vision of the future is tilt-up, prefab and soulless. That alone deserves support.

But state investment in parks isn’t increasing. Even though annual visitors now number more than 70 million. The park system’s answer to there not being enough money has been, first, to blow off already delayed maintenance and capital improvements. There’s now a $1.2 billion honey-do list. A couple years ago, the park system decided the latest round of budget cuts was too hefty and trundled out what’s known in D.C. as the “Washington Monument gambit”: Send more money or we shut down something iconic. Great strategy, except two years ago, the state was flat broke. Nevertheless, the threatened parks stayed open through various partnerships and temporary Band-Aids, and the park system keeps limping along. Does the way California operates its parks need to enter the 21st century? Totally. Like, for starters, switching from per-vehicle fees to user fees.

But the vision thing aside, parks essentially operate like little cities. They need electricity, water, sewage treatment, garbage disposal. There are roads, buildings and trails to maintain. Rangers keep the peace.

For the next few years, the analyst says there’s money to spend on those capital needs. So howzabout this year giving California a couple-hundred million to take care of some of that $1.2 billion in long-postponed maintenance? Take Hearst Castle, a moneymaker for the state, and arguably the park system’s crown jewel. It has an 86-year-old roof that leaks. Soon, it will cost more to store the books removed from Wild Bill’s Casa Grande library to avoid possible water damage than it would cost to retile. A new roof was supposed to happen last year. It still isn’t done. A leak in the Neptune Pool loses upwards of 5,000 gallons of water a day.

What better keep-on-giving gift than to insulate, renovate and rehabilitate our state parks? Repave. Re-roof. Repaint. Solarize and weatherize. So that we might better economize in the futurewise. The only problem is figuring out which giant sequoia to leave the package under.