When it comes to California’s political dysfunction, over and over, the story’s already been told. Failing schools, crumbling infrastructure. Highest taxes, highest unemployment, and highest cost-of-living. Hostile business climate. Crippling, punitive regulations and fees. Widest gap between rich and poor. Burning forests, lawless streets. Record numbers of homeless. Unaffordable housing. Water rationing, electricity blackouts. And on and on. We get it.
When it comes to California’s political hierarchy, again it’s a familiar story. Progressive liberals run almost everything. The political spending by government unions and leftist billionaires, overwhelmingly favoring housebroken incumbents, leave reform minded challengers decisively outgunned. The political bias of literally all the online and legacy media leave principled conservatives without a voice.
This is the context through which it is indeed surprising and impressive that California’s conservatives logged some significant wins in the November election. Critics downplay these victories – including flipping four U.S. Congressional seats and beating back a partial repeal of Prop. 13 – and instead remind everyone how California remains a one-party state, with progressive liberals still in absolute control of the state legislature, all higher state offices, and almost every city and county. But California’s conservative challengers had far less money, and they faced relentless media hostility. It’s a wonder they ever win anything, anywhere.
So what’s next for California’s conservatives? Or more to the point, what’s next for all Californians who agree regardless of their party affiliation that life in California could be better, much better, and that current government policies are to blame?
For starters, conservatives cannot identify a problem without simultaneously proposing a solution. And a unifying theme that should accompany proposed solutions is that nearly everyone wants the same result, regardless of their party ideology. That would mean acknowledging that progressive liberals – at least the idealists among them – have always had good intentions. But their policies have failed and it’s time to try something new.
Equally important, conservatives need to propose big solutions. Incrementalism is boring, costs too much to sell (because it’s so boring), and takes too long to make a difference. Conservatives needs to propose dramatic changes in policies that will terrify the progressive liberal elite. They need to propose solutions that will attract billions in opposition political spending, and then highlight how much money the opposition is spending to stop their ideas. They need to literally use the heavy spending by the establishment opposition as a weapon against them.
Solving the Problem of Failing Schools
The issue where principled conservatives can immediately seize the initiative and build a populist movement with the potential to immediately grow into an electoral supermajority is with public education. The teachers’ union has squandered much of its political capital by insisting on a near total lockdown of K-12 public schools in California, at the same time as private schools and a significant number of public charter schools have remained open.
The performance of California’s public schools was already dismal, especially in low income communities, even before COVID came along, but the innovations spawned during the shutdown have made the case for school choice more compelling than ever. Everyone in California wants K-12 schools to successfully educate children. Why not issue vouchers that parents can redeem as homeschoolers, or in micro-schools and pod-schools, or for private academies, parochial schools, charter schools, or traditional public schools. All that might be required for accreditation would be for the student body to reach or surpass minimum standards each year on standardized achievement tests. The case for vouchers is compelling.
California’s public schools receive approximately $15,000 per student per year from taxpayers. This equates to a $300,000 per year budget for one classroom with 20 students. That sort of budget will lease a pretty good classroom and a pretty good teacher, with plenty left over for educational materials. But even without vouchers, there are several ways that reforms can fundamentally transform and improve educational opportunities in California in both K-12 and college education. Here are a few:
1 – Create a voucher system for K-12 education, whereby every household with school age children is issued vouchers they can redeem at the school of their choice.
2 – Repeal legislation and regulations that restrict the formation of charter schools.
3 – Authorize through legislation the ability for homeschools, micro schools, pod schools, and distance learning programs to operate under the auspices of charter schools.
4 – Implement the work rule reforms sought after in the Vergara case – longer time before granting tenure, merit over seniority in layoffs, streamlined ability to terminate incompetent teachers.
5 – Restore the primacy of the SAT test in governing admission to public colleges and universities.
6 – Bring back vocational training programs in California’s high schools and junior colleges.
7 – Restore immutable discipline standards to make California’s high schools safe learning environments, expel disruptive students into special schools where they can be helped appropriately.
8 – Abolish all “diversity, equity and inclusion” programs as part of a headcount cut of at least 50 percent of nonfaculty personnel at public colleges and universities.
Education reform is the key to empowering the next generation of Californians, but there are other compelling issues that can be honestly promoted as nonpartisan solutions that will benefit all Californians. California’s neglected infrastructure is a prime example, because the quality of California’s water, energy and transportation infrastructure is what enables economic growth and broadly distributed prosperity. The challenge with infrastructure that it requires several fundamental shifts in policy that are difficult to distill into a coherent package for voters. But one at a time, conservatives can advocate a transformative agenda for water, energy and transportation, with the priority falling on water.
Solving the Problem of Neglected Infrastructure
Conservatives should back a $50 billion water bond, with the proceeds used to increase the annual water supply by at least 5 million acre feet. The bond would be crafted to allocate 100 percent of the funds to either the production, collection, or distribution of water. For example, California’s aqueducts and levees would be restored. Southern California’s urban water districts would achieve nearly total water independence through a combination of desalination plants and treatment plants with the capacity to convert 100 percent of wastewater to potable water. The various proposed surface storage projects, including Pacheco, Sites, and Temperance Flat reservoirs would be fully funded and expedited. The height of Lake Shasta Dam would be raised the proposed 18 feet. In this grand bargain, water abundance would be achieved in California, allowing environmentalists and farmers to receive their desired allotments, and urban users would no longer face rationing.
Here is a hypothetical list of the specific expenditures that would increase California’s annual supply of water by over 5 million acre feet:
1 – Build the Sites Reservoir (annual yield 0.5 MAF) – $5.0 billion.
2 – Build the Temperance Flat Reservoir (annual yield 0.25 MAF) – $3.0 billion.
3 – Raise the height of the Shasta Dam (increased annual yield 0.5 MAF) – $2.0 billion.
4 – So Cal water recycling plants to potable standards with 1.0 MAF capacity – $7.5 billion.
5 – So Cal desalination plants with 1.0 MAF capacity – $15.0 billion.
6 – Desalination plants on Central and North coasts with 0.5 MAF capacity – 7.5 billion
7 – Central and Northern California water recycling plants to potable standards with 1.0 MAF capacity – $7.5 billion.
8 – Facilities to capture runoff for aquifer recharge (annual yield 0.75 MAF) – $5.0 billion.
Total – $52.5 billion. Increased supply – 5.5 MAF.
On the issue of energy, conservatives can pursue a strategy that doesn’t seek to completely derail California’s commitment to renewables, but makes obvious and necessary adjustments. For example, conservatives should fight to keep Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in operation till the end of its useful life, which with regular upgrades could be several more decades. Conservatives should reverse the growing, misguided moves by progressive environmentalists to restrict the use of natural gas. And conservatives should require renewable energy providers to guarantee to any public utility customer a continuous, year-round supply of energy, and build that into their pricing, so that renewables do not unfairly drive other energy providers out of business.
When it comes to transportation, conservatives can reliably expect grassroots support to mothball the bullet train project, but conservatives should at the same time propose the funds that would have been allocated for high speed rail be redirected into transportation projects. Nearly all of California’s interstate highways need to have lanes added and resurfacing. Why isn’t I-5 three lanes in both directions from LA to Redding? What about Highway 99 and Highway 101? Conservatives should also advocate for more research and development of “smart lanes” or “hyperlanes” where high speed electric cars can run on autopilot. That innovation, along with passenger drones, is just around the corner, and if California is determined to be a leading edge state, developing these next generation roads for next generation cars is far more prescient than high speed rail.
Solving the Problem of Affordable Housing and Helping the Homeless
The other big issue, arguably bigger than everything mentioned so far, is housing and the homeless, and the interrelated issue of how to take back the lawless enclaves across California where tens of thousands of homeless have congregated. The first step is to rebalance the housing market. Conservatives must make it clear that “infill,” or “smart growth,” whereby nearly all the growth in housing stock occurs within the footprint of existing cities, is not going to solve the problem. Using taxpayer dollars to build subsidized multi-family dwellings in established neighborhoods is a divisive, futile exercise that only benefits opportunistic developers who build them at a cost of around $500,000 per unit. There are terrific alternative solutions that would actually work.
For less money, the enabling infrastructure of roads, parks, and utility conduits can be extended onto open land on the urban fringe. Why are the rolling hills east of San Jose still cattle ranches? If they’re so steep, why does San Francisco even exist? Why aren’t new towns springing up along the entire Highway 101 and Interstate 5 corridors? It’s just grazing land. You could build ten million homes on big lots in these areas of California, and you would barely make a dent in the remaining open space. Conservatives need to advocate laws that clear out the obstacles to constructing entire new cities. Conservatives need to make absolutely clear to voters that the reason homes cost so much is because of excessive laws, regulations, fees, and politically contrived scarcity of available land. Housing is indeed a human right, but the obligation of government is not to construct free housing, but to create the regulatory environment where private, unsubsidized builders can again make a profit building affordable homes. They do it in Texas. We can do it here. For example:
Ways housing could be more appropriately developed in California:
1 – Eliminate all forms of government subsidies, incentives or waivers to any developers. All players in the housing industry should be unsubsidized, and playing by the same set of rules.
2 – Stop requiring diverse types of housing within the same development or neighborhood. Mixing high-density, subsidized housing into residential neighborhoods devalues the existing housing, and this social engineering is unfair to existing residents who have paid a high price to live there.
3 – Roll back the more extreme building codes. Requiring 100 percent of homes to be “energy neutral” or include rooftop photovoltaic arrays, for example, greatly increase the cost of homes.
4 – Lower the fees on building permits for new housing and housing remodels. Doing this might require pension reform, since that’s where all extra revenue goes, but until permitting costs are lowered, only billionaire developers can afford to build.
5 – Speed up the permitting process. It can take years to get permits approved in California. Again, the practical effect of this failure is that only major developers can afford to build.
6 – Reform the California Environmental Quality Act as follows: prohibit duplicative lawsuits, require full disclosure of identity of litigants, outlaw legal delaying tactics, prohibit rulings that stop entire project on single issue, and require the loser to pay the legal fees. Better yet, scrap it altogether. Federal laws already provide adequate environmental safeguards.
7 – Make it easier to extract building materials in-state. California, spectacularly rich in natural resources, has to import lumber and aggregate from as far away as Canada. This not only greatly increases construction costs, it’s hypocritical.
8 – Increase the supply of land for private development of housing. Currently only five percent of California is urbanized. There are thousands of square miles of non-farm, non critical habitat that could be opened up for massive land development.
9 – Engage in practical, appropriate zoning for infill and densification in urban cores, but only after also increasing the supply of open land for housing, and only while continuing to respect the integrity of established residential neighborhoods.
The issue of housing segues naturally into the issue of the homeless, now estimated at around 150,000 in California. Experts on the homeless divide them into three groups, the “have nots,” the “can nots,” and the “will nots.” The have nots are people who have had a series of economic or medical catastrophes and usually with some help from friends or friendly agencies they get back on their feet. But the majority of unsheltered homeless in California belong to the other two groups. The “can nots” are people who are disabled or mentally ill. They are typically incapable of living independently. The rest, constituting the majority of the unsheltered homeless in California, are “will nots.” These are people who have been attracted to, for example, the beaches of Southern California, where they can live on the streets year-round, taking advantage of free food in the shelters, a vibrant drug scene, and laws that have effectively decriminalized theft up to $950 per day, as well as possession and consumption of virtually any recreational drug including methamphetamine and heroin.
The solution to the problem of California’s homeless starts by recognizing that the obligations of compassion do not extend to tolerating theft, intoxication, or vagrancy, much less physical drug addiction as a “lifestyle.” People who live this way do not need indulgence, they need help. The current practice of building shelters on some of the most expensive real estate on earth, without even performing background checks or requiring sobriety, is a disgraceful waste of money. There are very specific steps that can be taken, as follows:
1 – Challenge the ruling Jones vs the City of Los Angeles in court, with the objective of redefining “permanent supportive housing” as inexpensive tents and community kitchen and bath facilities, located in the least expensive parts of counties. This will make it possible for homeless people to be relocated to safe shelter immediately, instead of having to wait until tax subsidized developers build them “supportive housing” at a cost of $500,000 per unit (or more). Any politician that runs for office that does not commit to overturning or dramatically clarifying the Jones ruling does not care about the homeless and is not serious about solving the problem.
2 – Revise the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act of 1967 that made it nearly impossible to incarcerate the mentally ill. It is not compassionate, nor is it a constitutional obligation, to permit someone who is obviously deranged to live on the streets where they are easy prey for criminals and perpetually tormented by mental illness. At the very least, these victims need to be taken off the streets and moved to facilities where they can be observed and treated if necessary. If they are not found to be seriously mentally ill, they can be placed in inexpensive shelters.
3 – Sponsor a referendum on Prop. 47 which downgraded drug and property crimes. It is absolutely impossible to police California’s streets if criminals are allowed to steal up to $950 of property every day, and never face more than a misdemeanor charge. Similarly, it is a recipe for chaos to tolerate public consumption of opiates and amphetamines and other hard drugs. Conservatives must emphasize that it is not compassionate to allow people to descend into the hell of addiction, and when drug addicts move into public spaces and become disruptive, it is reasonable to arrest them.
It is important to emphasize that California’s homeless problem will be significantly reduced if the supply of housing is increased and appropriate penalties are restored for vagrancy, petty theft and possession of hard drugs. Once housing is more affordable and once the “will not” contingent of homeless realize the party is over, California’s population of unsheltered homeless will become manageable. They can then be helped in facilities built in inexpensive areas, so that all of them can be accommodated, and the money that is saved can be used to treat their substance abuse, their mental illness, and provide job training.
Solving the Problem of Wildfires
There are a lot of issues that matter very much to some Californians, but the choice of issues here are those that matter very much to all Californians. Another example of such an issue is prevention of wildfires. This issue – how to prevent catastrophic wildfires – like all those already mentioned, has an obvious solution. And as with the other issues, there are powerful special interests that don’t want anything to change.
The problem is we have become expert at fire suppression, at the same time as we’ve reduced our timber industry to a fraction of its former size. The result are overgrown, stressed, tinder dry forests. The solution to preventing catastrophic wildfires, at least in California’s conifer forests where most wildfires occur, is to revive the timber industry. Modern logging practices do not destroy forest ecosystems, and in fact can be beneficial to the ecosystems. California’s timber industry needs to expand from the current annual harvest of 1.5 billion board feet to 4.5 billion board feet.
If the size of California’s timber industry were tripled, the amount of wood being harvested from the forests would almost be equal to the rate at which the forests grow each year. Using a mix of clear cutting on a 50 to 100 year rotation, combined with so-called “uneven age management” in more sensitive areas in order to preserve important groves and other valuable ecosystems, California’s overgrown forests could be quickly restored to health. There are many benefits to such a transformation:
1 – The clear cut areas, never more than 1-2 percent of the forests, would provide temporary meadow which actually helps wildlife populations.
2 – The logged areas are immediately mulched with new trees planted in furrows that follow the elevation contours, meaning all storm runoff percolates into the aquifers.
3 – The properly thinned forests no longer use up all the precipitation. Currently, the trees in California’s overgrown forests drink all the rain, often allowing none of it to run into the streams or percolate into the aquifers, and they’re so dense they’re often stressed and dying anyway. If California’s forests were thinned down to healthy historical norms, millions of acre feet per year would be added to California’s water supply.
4 – The timber companies, at their expense, will thin the forests, maintain the logging roads which are also fire breaks and used by firefighting crews, and cut away trees and brush that encroach on power lines. Currently all of those roads, fire breaks, and transmission corridors are overgrown because the timber companies have been chased out and there aren’t funds to do this maintenance from any other sources.
5 – Thousands of good jobs will be created, and instead of costing taxpayers money, it will generate tax revenue.
California’s fire seasons exemplify much of the political dysfunction that grips the state. And confronting the special interests that prevent progress does not require denying the values that these special interests have used for years to maintain their credibility with voters. It doesn’t harm the forests to bring back logging. Wildlife biologists have argued the exact opposite, that modern logging will save the forests, not only from wildfires that literally threaten to obliterate California’s overgrown forests, but even by revitalizing the ecosystems so wildlife can thrive.
The Coalition that Conservatives Can Build If They Offer Bold Solutions
This theme, that we want the same things the progressive liberals say they want but have failed to provide, offers conservatives power and credibility that money can’t buy. By not only identifying the failures of the ruling liberal establishment, but by taking on the exact same challenges and offering practical, obvious solutions, conservatives can build a populist supermajority in California.
Imagine the excitement that candidates can generate when they announce their commitment to legislation and ballot initiatives that will solve the biggest bipartisan challenges facing Californians. School vouchers will liberate millions of school children from a failing public school system that is under nearly monopoly control of the teachers’ unions. Overnight, competitive schools will be opened, offering a diversity of programs so that every parent has the freedom to choose a curriculum that will maximize the chances for their children to learn and have a bright future. Parents that homeschool or form micro-schools will get reimbursed, making that option feasible for far more parents. Private schools as well will thrive, as parents who couldn’t previously afford the quality of a private school will now have that opportunity.
Imagine the enthusiasm that will greet a serious proposal to create water abundance in California. $50 billion in general obligation bonds is plenty of money to increase California’s annual water supply by 5 million acre feet, since additional financing could come from revenue bonds attached to the ratepayers who would purchase the water, along with federal assistance. Imagine the relief Californians will feel when electricity bills stop rising inexorably to keep pace with renewable portfolio mandates, simply because Diablo Canyon stayed open, we didn’t destroy our natural gas infrastructure, and renewable electricity producers had to price the cost to provide continuous power into their contracts with the utilities. Imagine being able to drive safely up and down California’s widened and resurfaced freeways for less cost than what was proposed to be squandered on the bullet train.
It gets better. Imagine being able to afford homes again. Imagine that anyone with a decent job could once again afford to purchase a new home on a spacious lot, instead being a mortgage slave merely to own an overpriced home on a lot so small you can’t fit a swing set or trampoline in the back yard. Imagine new cities and suburbs up and down Interstate 5 and Highway 101. Imagine all those beautiful residential suburbs spared the divisive stress of having multi-story, multi-family, tax subsidized apartment buildings sprinkled randomly into the neighborhoods to house people who in a fair society could find a job and buy a home of their own.
And better still, imagine homeless drug addicts and alcoholics getting treated in facilities that are safe and inexpensive, instead of being allowed to destroy their lives while eating in shelters nestled in the middle of beachfront communities where people work like hell to pay their mortgages. Imagine the mentally ill taken off the streets and given treatment. Imagine California’s neighborhoods, parks, shopping districts, public squares, transit systems, sidewalks, alleys, underpasses and beaches given back to the local residents, shoppers and tourists.
And finally, imagine a state where a revived timber industry along with streamlined procedures for controlled burns and building firebreaks and removing biomass means a state where the air isn’t fouled for weeks on end every summer, as cataclysmic infernos drive thousands from their homes and rack up billions in damages.
This is an agenda that will attract every parent of a K-12 student in California. It will attract business and labor interests who want the economic growth. It will attract every family that wants to live in a home with a yard without having to go broke to do it. It will attract every person who doesn’t want to live with water rationing, or unreliable and expensive electricity, or endure clogged freeways. It will appeal to homeless advocates, if they’re honest about what needs to be done, and it will gain the passionate support of every resident of every community currently besieged by homeless encampments.
This agenda is not ideological, it is practical. It mingles libertarian solutions, such as using the private timber industry to solve the problem of forest fires, with government solutions, such as issuing general obligation bonds to guarantee abundant water. While it is certain to enrage some environmentalists, others will acknowledge key facts in favor of this agenda: new suburbs in the age of electric cars and telecommuting do not cause climate change, nor does nuclear power, there is plenty of open space in California to accommodate a few thousand additional square miles of urban civilization, timber extraction is the only practical way to thin overgrown forests and hence save them, and abundant water means, for example, we can refill the Salton Sea, we can send bigger freshwater pulses down the rivers and through the delta, and we can replenish our aquifers.
The biggest foes of this agenda will be the teachers’ unions. Good. Make the fight about this fearsome gang of leftist agitators who care more about indoctrinating children to harbor racial resentment than about encouraging them to take individual responsibility for their lives. The California Teachers Association is the most powerful political special interest in California, although in recent years the leftist billionaires of Silicon Valley are challenging them for the top spot. But these tech billionaires can also be targets of this fight. Why are the Big Brother tech billionaires, along with the entire leftist establishment headed by the California Teachers Association – and the Sierra Club – being allowed by California’s voters to do everything wrong?
Conservatives can offer freedom, enlightenment, prosperity, abundance, and safety – everything that progressive liberal ideology has taken away from Californians. They can adopt a platform that embraces school vouchers, infrastructure investment and practical approaches to water, energy and transportation challenges, regulatory reform to stimulate urban expansion and affordable new suburbs, sensible and cost-effective solutions to the homeless crisis, and a revitalized timber industry to curb the risk of wildfires and create thousands of jobs.
Conservatives can offer solutions. They can be bold. They can go on the attack, on behalf of all Californians. And they can win, to everyone’s tremendous benefit.
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How to Save California’s Forests, October 2020
The Battle for California is the Battle for America, October, 2020
How to Realign California Politics, September 2020
California’s Progressive War on Suburbia, February 2020
The Boondoggle Archipelago, November 2019
The Density Delusion, August 2019
Defining Appropriate Housing Development in California, February 2019
Towards a Grand Bargain on California Water Policy, August 2018
This article originally appeared on the website of the California Policy Center.
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Edward Ring is a contributing editor and senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. He is also a senior fellow with the Center for American Greatness, and a regular contributor to the California Globe. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Forbes, and other media outlets.
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