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Sunday, June 06, 2004

Growing Problem Demands a Plan

Growing Problem Demands a Plan

When I was born half a century ago in the Bay Area, California was boldly building highways, colleges and aqueducts, making other states sick with envy. Today, state and local officials from the Oregon to Mexican borders struggle to hold on, trying to make soup from bones.

The population of California was a little more than 10 million when I was a tot. Today the population of Los Angeles County alone is a little more than 10 million, with the state at 36 million and rising.

Do we have too many people, or too few leaders?

Have we hit capacity, or lost our imagination?

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said California should have "fantastic jobs" for everyone.

Thanks, Guv.

Now raise your hand if you think this golden age will happen at a time when some schools don't have enough textbooks, and the once-heralded state college and university system is being scaled back by Mr. Fantastic-Jobs-for-Everyone?

A few weeks ago I rang the office of a legislative committee that calls itself "Preparing California for the 21st Century," and a clerk told me the subject of growth-related challenges had not been a big topic of conversation.

It was like calling a Global Warming Committee and finding out the subject of pollution hadn't come up. The clerk told me there once was another committee that looked into growth-related matters, but it's now defunct.

Laid-back is one thing. What we've got is an entire state in denial.

Water is in short supply, beaches are fouled and barely a fifth of the state's 1999 high school freshmen completed college prep courses by their senior year. If we can't manage our affairs today, what can we expect in 20 years, when the state population is expected to grow by 30% to between 46 million and 48 million people?

Fortunately, I'm not entirely alone in wondering about these things. The folks at the Public Policy Institute of California realized months ago that public officials are asleep at the wheel, and began putting together a report on what California will look like in the year 2025.

Someone had to step into the leadership vacuum, says Mark Baldassare, who runs the institute and plans to release a report early next year. For a preview, here's this nugget from the institute website: "California faces unprecedented growth-related challenges that could seriously erode its quality of life over the next two decades." Water, transportation, environment, the economy and education are the big question marks, Baldassare says. On the latter two, it's already clear to him that California is going to need a highly educated labor pool, but we're not exactly speeding along on the road to creating one.

Now is the time, Baldassare says, for citizens to start thinking about a question their elected officials aren't bothering to ask: What kind of California do we want?

The California that dreamed big enough to offer everyone a decent shot at a few gold nuggets, turned back pollution, and invested in schools rather than prisons? Or the one that considers it cause for celebration if we just make it through the next budget battle?

Not that these are easy answers in a border state where the First World meets the Third, with more challenges than any other state in the country.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, for instance, nearly one-third of the 180,000 high school students are still learning English. Instead of figuring out how to address that issue, Latino legislators are spending their days trying to get driver's licenses approved for illegal immigrants.

It's not clear to me how many illegal immigrants can afford to buy cars, pay insurance and pay six times the normal license fee, as proposed. If they're out there, I say we legalize them and deport deadbeat U.S. citizens.

Frankly, I'm still trying to figure out what logic is at play in current law that says illegal immigrants can legally go to public school or the county hospital, but can't drive to get there. On the other hand, do we have any idea whether the cheap labor we covet is really a bargain after you figure in the cost of education and healthcare, or the impact on wages?

As some readers have noted, I keep tossing out these questions lately about population, immigration, traffic, pollution and education, but I'm not as generous with answers.

That's because I'm still looking for them.

Several weeks ago, I wrote about an undocumented immigrant named Sylvia, who came up from Mexico almost 20 years ago and lives in a one-bedroom Los Angeles apartment with six children.

Does she ever wish she had stayed in Mexico? I asked.

"It's better to be poor in this country than in Mexico," she said, telling me that if I knew where she came from in the mountains several hours north of Mexico City, I'd understand.

This week, I'm going to see for myself.

I also wrote recently about an Azusa woman named Erika. She told me she works twice as hard in traffic-choked Southern California, with its absurd real estate market, but doesn't make out as well as she did in Guadalajara, where there was less rat race and more family time.

I'm going to Guadalajara, too, to see how Erika's family lives, and whether they intend to follow her to California.

Later this year, I'm going to California's Central Valley, where the birthrates have rivaled those of Third World countries. And to Sacramento, where I'm going to find out what on Earth the "Preparing California for the 21st Century" committee does when it meets.

Baldassare told me he doesn't think California has too many people yet. We've still got open spaces, he said, and we've always accommodated growth and benefited from it, too.

We did more than that. We planned ahead and dared to think big. We were golden, once.

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