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Make the County the Solution

By Frank Gruber

May 26, 2009 -- Last week Californians voted on a series of propositions the government in Sacramento had placed on the ballot to help stabilize the state's finances and the results were more or less like this:

        -- About 8 percent of the electorate voted in favor             of the proposals;
        -- About 8 percent voted against them because             they increased taxes;
        -- About 8 percent voted against them because             they imposed a spending cap or took money             away from voter-mandated programs; and
        -- About 75 percent did not vote.

I will now invoke -- every columnist is permitted to do this once -- the profound words of Pogo's Walt Kelly that have become one of the hoariest of clichés: "We have met the enemy and he is us."

The California electorate created this mess we're in with three decades of insane ballot box government.  When confronted with the resulting crisis, the voters dillied, dallied and stayed home.

That's not to say there aren't real-world contributors to the crisis.  According to an article [ 4,0,1725878.story] in Sunday's L.A. Times, the expenditures for Medi-Cal have grown 40 percent in the five years since Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor, from less than $10 to approaching $14.5 billion, and there have been even more dramatic percentage increases in other programs, such as for the mentally ill and disabled. 

The costs of the prison system have increased $4 billion -- not only because after voter-approved Three Strikes we incarcerate so many, but also because the federal courts have said that we need to treat prisoners better. 

What kind of society do we have that more and more of us are too poor to have health insurance and so many of us are in prison?

And then there are the politicians -- the great uncompromisers of Sacramento, reflecting California's divided electorate.

The situation in California is that the most productive and wealthy counties -- the urban counties -- subsidize government in exurban and rural counties, but at the same time the representatives in the urban counties have placed a tax burden on the other counties that they don't want to pay.  It's untenable.

For my little part, I'll repeat what I've written before.  While my fantasy solution is to break up California [] into four manageable and cohesive states, the more likely reality I'd settle for is for Los Angeles County to start acting more like a state.

The more than 10 million residents of L.A. County -- about the same number as the population of Pennsylvania -- have shown time and again that they are willing to invest in the commonweal.  We regularly pass school bonds and transit taxes.

We need the County government to enact local taxes (which will have to be approved by the voters) for schools, healthcare, the justice system, transit, etc., that are independent of the state budget mess and safe from the rule of the right-wing minority. 

Then our representatives in Sacramento can agree to lower statewide taxes and services, because the money will stay here in the county to pay for those services.

Let the Republicans in their districts figure out what to do -- how they're going to pay for the infrastructure they want for growth -- when they're not getting money from us.

But what we residents of L.A. County need to make this happen is democracy.  We are governed by a five-member Board of Supervisors, an unelected executive branch, and numerous boards, commissions, and authorities, that (i) are for all practical purposes unaccountable and (ii) as a result have no popular mandate.

We need to expand the Board of Supervisors into a countywide legislature, and we need an elected county executive.

Memo to Zev Yaroslavsky: wouldn't you want to be that executive?  Please make this happen.

* * *

Foreign affairs are not part of my regular beat, but sometimes I feel compelled.  The big news last week was President Obama's speech on what to do in the aftermath of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld "War on Terror" nightmare.

Since the speech Dick Cheney's attacks from the Right have denominated the news, and there has also be criticism from the Left about the likely creation by Pres. Obama of a preventative detention system.

I don't have a lot to say, but I want to point out a paradox.  As someone who wrote after 9/11 [
columns/FrankGru ber/FG-2001/09_2001/9_14_2001_Looking_
Over_the_Horizon.htm] about "what a triumph it would be to show that we can give our sworn enemy a fair trial," I have only disgust for the policies and practices that have made due process for the likes of Khalid Sheikh Muhammed impossible.

Any judge in America would be compelled to throw out the charges on the basis of prosecutorial misconduct.

Nor does it appear that detainees like Muhammed can be tried in even revamped military commissions, which apparently will be used only for "smaller fry."

The paradox is this.  If they were tried in a criminal court, the criminals who attacked us on 9/11 might be convicted and sentenced to death.  That would give them the martyrdom they have told military courts they want, and the punishment so many Americans want them to have.

That won't happen now.  Because of what the Bush regime did, there will be no justice: neither in the sense of due process nor in that of punishment.  The detainees will, in effect, through whatever system the administration and Congress establish, be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

My anti-death penalty self is pleased.  The justice-loving American in me is angry.

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