Even if Growth Slows Down, State Services Need to Catch Up

George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at

So California’s population growth is slowing! What does it mean? Not much.

It means that in 2010 -- if the state’s latest projections are on mark -- there’ll be 39 million people here, instead of 40 million. In 2020, there’ll be 44 million -- not 46 million -- fighting for freeway space, scarce water and classroom desks. Plus affordable housing within commute distance.

The news last week was gratifying, but also alarming.

The Times reported that the state has lowered its estimates of California’s future population. The main reason is that Latinos are having fewer children than they were. Their fertility rate has dropped from 3.4 children in 1990 to 2.6 currently.

That’s the hopeful part. The scary part is what else the story said: “State planners are reconsidering long-term needs for new schools and other public services.”


Huh! We’re behind now with “only” 36 million people. We haven’t caught up even with 1990’s population of 30 million.

As Mary Heim, chief state demographer, notes: “California is continuing to grow. We’re still going to get there. It just may take a year or two longer.”

I called some state officials who plan for future schools, highways and water. All assured me they are not scaling back on estimates of needs.

The pertinent question, anyway, is how far short we’ll fall in meeting the needs. State government is a fiscal shambles, and that has been the situation for many years, except for a brief period of squandered riches in the late 1990s.

Most of the 1990s was brutal for California. The end of the Cold War meant huge losses of defense industry jobs. The recession was aggravated in L.A. by a riot. There were the natural disasters: drought and flood, earthquake and fire. It wasn’t a good time for the state to invest in the future -- in what numbingly is called infrastructure.

But guess what? That’s the norm. Most of this stuff -- especially the natural catastrophes -- is cyclical. There’s seldom a good time to pony up, particularly when the primary goal of Republicans is to avoid tax increases -- and Democrats refuse to compromise by paring back spending on their patron public employees.


There’s little money, little discipline and little guts.

Far from investing in the future, Capitol politicians have been borrowing from the future to pay for current bills, like the car tax cut and employee pension contributions. To “balance” this year’s $105.4-billion budget, they used $11.3 billion of the $15-billion “economic recovery bond” that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger talked voters into approving. The governor and lawmakers also grabbed $3.5 billion from other borrowing.

To make ends meet -- ostensibly -- budget-makers have been borrowing shamelessly from state transportation funds. They’ve seized $2.6 billion, including $1.2 billion this year. That’s tax money motorists pay at the pump. It’s supposed to be spent for highway construction.

The most outspoken critic of credit-card budgeting to pay for current expenses -- rather than long-term infrastructure needs -- is state Treasurer Phil Angelides, a likely candidate for governor in 2006. Angelides advocates raising taxes on high income earners and cutting spending, which he doesn’t identify.

“California didn’t become economically strong by chance,” Angelides says. “We succeeded by choice. We built a remarkable higher education system. Without the state water project, L.A. wouldn’t be the behemoth it is on the international scene....

“Now, all the debate in Sacramento revolves around how to pay our debts rather than how to smartly invest.”

Education has fared better than most programs because it ranks atop the public’s priority list. Voters have approved two statewide school construction bond issues totaling $25 billion in recent years. Expect another bond proposal in 2006.


Enrollments have dipped in some urban areas and soared in the more affordable suburbs -- like the Inland Empire and the Central Valley. “We need 35,000 new classrooms over the next five years,” says Kathleen Moore, planning director for the state Department of Education. “That’s 19 classrooms a day.”

Jack O’Connell, state superintendent of public instruction, says, “We’re an aging infrastructure -- 60% of schools are 30 years or older.” There’s a big backlog of deferred maintenance and modernization.

As for highways, “If you get stuck in traffic, you see what the needs are,” notes David Brewer, deputy director of the California Transportation Commission. One study identified $100 billion in transportation needs.

Because of funding heists by the politicians, no new highway improvement projects have been authorized this year. There is a minimal amount of repair.

Water is about to embarrass the politicians who have been too timid to seriously confront the issue. Unless the next winter is very wet, we’ll be hit by another severe drought. If it is very wet, we could see deadly flooding, because Northern California levies are rotting out.

Meanwhile, politically wired developers are being allowed to build houses in flood plains.

California began the 20th century with 1.5 million people. By 1950, we had 10.6 million; by 2000, 34.1 million. It’s wonderful news that we won’t be topping 50 million people until 2036, instead of eight years earlier.


But California has always confounded demographers -- with a Gold Rush, an oil boom, a World War II migration, foreign immigration. You can count on it. And we’re not even ready for the people here now.