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California's budget breaking point

If what it takes to fix California -- to fix everything about the way it raises money and spends it -- is to let it wreck itself first, then maybe we have to let that happen.

We have a $42-billion hole to climb out of between now and the middle of 2010. Even though the Legislature has been locked in detention for more than a month to do its budget homework, nothing has really changed -- except the deficit, which has gotten bigger.

The Democrats are swarming like ant armies to find a way, legal or not, through the two-thirds budget vote blockade.

The Republicans are reveling in the power of saying no to taxes, and are terrified of losing their jobs if they say yes.

And the governor went skiing in Idaho over New Year's, leaving his latest budget ideas behind for someone else to announce. (Can you blame him? Who wants to stick around the scene of a disaster?)

Meanwhile, we voters have been so mesmerized by our budgeting power at the ballot boxthat we've squandered and abused it.

So maybe we should see what happens if this disaster plays itself out. What if we just let Sacramento take its hands off the steering wheel and the state economy goes where it will? Let the money run out. Let programs vanish. Maybe only then will we realize what's important.

Not your problem, you think? Say the clinics start closing. OK, you don't need clinics -- but the working poor do. Maybe your father's caregiver, who depends on them, gets sick and finally has to quit because she couldn't get treated. Not your problem?

The libraries start closing. So what? Your kids have books. But the school kids who don't, who go to libraries to do their homework until their parents come home from work -- they start hanging out elsewhere, and flunking out.

The stalemate in Sacramento is starting to remind me of another one, the one that ended in disaster in Vietnam. The nation's revulsion against the Vietnam War only registered when the pain was constant and pervasive, impossible for even the previously silent majority to avoid speaking out: middle-class draftees coming home in coffins; everyone watching the carnage on Huntley and Brinkley. "This is what we're doing?" they asked.

What is the tipping point? When will voter revulsion be deep enough and wide enough to affect a budget abattoir that's about much more than mere billions?

It could be when a 911 ambulance patient dies because nearby hospital emergency rooms closed after the state stopped paying the ER bill for the uninsured. It could be when you get an IOU instead of your state tax refund. Or it could be when your daughter comes home with the news that her favorite teacher's been fired and she's now in a class with 52 other kids.

If we can't take control of the budget problem, it controls us. When fire season comes, you might have to cut your own firebreak because the governor will have killed off the California Conservation Corps, a 30-plus-year-old program that turns at-risk kids into firefighters and foresters. Or UC might shut down a specialized program your son's been working toward for years, and you face breaking his heart or breaking the bank with out-of-state tuition.

Could it happen? San Diego is as good a test case as any. As my colleague, Tony Perry, wrote this week, supervisors have been pulled from the city's skateboard parks because there's not enough in city taxes or fees to pay for them. Now kids can skate without helmets, chug beer, scrawl graffiti -- all on city property. They're having a swell time.

That fits right in with what Perry called the political zeitgeist there: San Diego is the only really populous county in the state without a county fire department. It is also where fires have ravaged whole neighborhoods, and where voters so far have absolutely refused to tax themselves to pay for better firefighting. In one precinct in the town of Crest, which got savaged in the 2003 Cedar fire, voters stood 2 to 1 against the tax.

Are we in for a "let it burn" society? How many houses would the fires have to destroy in San Diego? How many kids would have to crack their skulls at an unsupervised skate park, and their parents sue the city for negligence, before we would wise up?

Where's the bottom? Where is California's breaking point?

It's all academic at this point, but it won't be for long. Maybe, Vietnam-like, the Legislature should just declare victory and go home. Then we'll find out.

patt.morrison@latimes.com

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