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The Story of a Lifetime

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Posted on Jan 11, 2011
AP / Rich Pedroncelli

Jerry Brown discusses his approach to dealing with a California state budget deficit estimated at $25.4 billion. The newly inaugurated governor spoke at the Capitol in Sacramento on Monday during a news conference in which he released his $84.6 billion general fund spending plan.

By Bill Boyarsky

Covering the statehouse or city hall is regarded as the minor leagues of political journalism. A substantial number of those so employed would rather be in Washington, on the campaign plane or in an editor’s chair tyrannizing reporters. But this year, these too-often-unappreciated scriveners are in the middle of one of the most important domestic stories in decades.

On their beats—now only a few after years of media cutbacks—they’re witnessing how the recession has driven states and local governments into financial calamity, taking an enormous toll on services for the poor, police and fire protection, snow removal and many other unglamorous necessities.

Selling such stories to editors is tough. Editors, under pressure to cover celebrities and scandal, find them boring. When I was a local-government reporter, I had to use a lot of imagination and salesmanship to interest my editors. City hall reporters tell me it’s worse today.

But recent events could force a massive reappraisal of such attitudes.

Just take a look at the speeches that Democratic Govs. Jerry Brown of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York gave when they took office on the first week of the new year.


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Cuomo, The New York Times reported, proposed freezing the salaries of most state employees, reducing spending for Medicaid (the program for the poor) and limiting property tax increases. “What made New York the Empire State was not a large government complex,” he said. “It was a vibrant private sector that was creating great jobs in the state of New York.”

Brown, who served two terms as governor (1975 to 1983) in more prosperous times, said, “The budget I present … will be painful, but it will be an honest budget. The items of spending will be matched with available tax revenues. …”

California faces a $28 billion budget deficit. New York’s is almost $10 billion.

For the revenue shortage, you can blame the recession, the tea party-mad Republicans in Congress and President Barack Obama’s sharp tack to the center and away from the liberal government activism that produced the 2009 stimulus bill.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that the census has found that state tax revenues declined by $67 billion in 2008-09. It was, the center said, “a collapse of unprecedented magnitude.” And with revenue falling, high unemployment and loss of health insurance benefits increased the number of those eligible for Medicaid (partly financed by the states) and other services.

It would have been much worse without the stimulus bill, so reviled by the Republicans and business interests. You wouldn’t know it from their tirades, but the stimulus was a lifesaver for many. Even so, it would be foolish to expect another one in light of the Republicans’ new congressional power and pro-business William M. Daley newly installed as Obama’s chief of staff. 

Just how important the Daley appointment was to business was illustrated by the positive reaction of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s biggest business lobby organization. The group had opposed Obama’s health care and financial regulatory bills and provided $75 million for political ads in the midterm congressional elections, mainly directed against Democrats. “This is a strong appointment,” Thomas Donohue, the organization’s president, said in a statement. “We look forward to working with him to accelerate our recovery, grow the economy, create jobs, and tackle America’s global challenges.”

So let Donohue hoist a celebratory drink with his new friends in the White House while the stimulus program dies and, as the budget priorities center predicted, “states face budget gaps in 2012 that will make 2009 look almost rosy by comparison.”

Making things worse, Cuomo, Brown and other governors oppose higher taxes, although Brown said he would put tax increases to a popular vote later this year.

For the journalists covering statehouses and city halls, this offers either the opportunity or missed opportunity of a lifetime. 

The opportunity would be to report the cause and the impact of a calamity. We journalists love such things, although we do better if they are a hurricane, fire or riot. In this case, journalists will have to dig from neighborhoods to city hall, from the statehouse to Washington, and nail those making the decisions. Get their names, titles and e-mail addresses. Hold them accountable. Expose those causing so much pain. Don’t listen to their spin. 

Great journalism of this kind could show the harm done by the anti-government campaign so effectively mounted by business and the Republicans in last year’s election. As Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, wrote, “The consequences of inhumane cuts in state and city budgets—ravaged pensions, gutted schools, mass unemployment—could lead people of all parties to a renewed understanding and appreciation of government’s role.”

I’d like to believe that. But too many television and radio stations have slashed their government and political reporting staffs. The American Journalism Review found that the number of reporters covering statehouses around the country dropped from 524 in 2003 to 355 in 2009. Too many of the reporters are now out of the business.

We may be approaching one of America’s great unreported disasters—both for the country and for journalism.

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Napolean DoneHisPart's avatar

By Napolean DoneHisPart, January 14, 2011 at 4:56 pm Link to this comment

Was TruthDig offline today?

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By Uncensored, January 14, 2011 at 4:13 pm Link to this comment

Part of the problem as I see it is that creative new fresh thinkers are kept out of the process by the existing status quo. In addition to those who simply have no interest in serving on school boards and the like, but who would be great assets.

The past decade has been the decade of fraud, waste, and abuse - as if it has been socialized. In fact, in the current environment anyone who is playing by the rules is simply not going to make it. This is how we end up with terrible business practices where staff claim “if I didn’t do it, someone else would” and “We’re too big to fail.”

Trickle down economics and the war economy have been thoroughly debunked by scores of experts for decades. Between censorship and the sensationalism the media has become to try to survive and the outright PR campaign talking points being published; we are lucky to have this and other outlets.

Getting the media to pay attention to this subject could be as easy as reminding them that they too are suffering the threat of going out of business. Its kind of like an everybody loses situation. With the US dollar soon to be worthless, the only winners will be the crooks and their Swiss bank accounts. That is only until the entire world economy collapses, at which time the whole world loses, including the wealthy crooks.

The war economy and the trickle down is a double down economic suicidal bet. You truly could not have a more toxic combination for inhibiting economic growth. The CEOs have stated “China is the future” and have directed investment elsewhere.

They will take their tax savings and buy what will be most lucrative for them. There is no incentive to invest in the US, there are only incentives to invest in companies, most of which are multinational. In this way, we are losing our very identity, our very brand. Every nation faces the same fate under this global economy plan.

Free trade is not fair trade. Now we will suffer the same austerity as Ireland and Greece as a result.

I served on the budget cutting committee for a local school district. We found that a shared cut by all was the most effective, fair, and best way to save school days. So while the people are suffering and the governments services are making sweeping cuts, the CEOs and the crooks who destroyed our economy are getting record bonuses.

We need to reform the way business is modeled, we need to reform the ratings system for the media, and we need new fresh creative people to break down the doors that have shut them out. We literally need to let go of the past assumptions and models and create new ones.

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By Jim Mamer, January 13, 2011 at 11:16 pm Link to this comment

Great column.

There are few issues more important than the fallout from continual reductions in the number of reporters assigned to state and local governments, but, as you obviously know, it has not just happened at television and radio stations. Look at what has happened to the formally very good Los Angeles Times - your old employer.

Certainly this qualifies as an “unreported disaster” but it also increases the importance of Truthdig, the Huffington Post, and KCRW’s Warren Olney. Thanks for your work.

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By Textynn, January 12, 2011 at 10:35 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

it is pretty obvious that the elite have made the decision to clean out the middle class and establish a peasant / aristocracy in America. It is also obvious that Obama has thrown in with this aristocracy and is using all his voter given power to help them.

Those in control are openly thinning the herd. They are also openly shifting all the wealth in this nation into the hands of the very few. There is no democracy and there are no civil liberties. The latest articles about Lockheed Martin only scratches the surface as to the extent that Americans are being sized up for fleecing.  The banks are working in tandem with the government, actually running it and using all the data they have on people to go after their meager assets and demand control of every cent that moves through people’s hands.

Americans better figure out that they are on the menu and that the government is being run by the cannibals. I do believe in government and I know single payer is the best thing that could happen to this country for starters and ending wars goes in that category also.

However, the government is a weapon in the hands of the wrong people. And I for one, believe it is way past time trying to wrangle that weapon out of the hands of these pillagers.  I for one can see that nothing is going to stop these people , nothing. We are wasting time talking about their crimes, they know they are criminals. We are wasting time discussing our hardships, they just use this info to instill more. We are wasting time trying to play by their rules. They don’t play by any rules.\

What is the answer, I don’t know but i do know that we are all in danger and our way of life is being sold out from under us, if not our very lives.

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By REDHORSE, January 12, 2011 at 9:34 pm Link to this comment

One positive result of the coming collapse may be the increasing inability of Corporations to exploit the poor with high interest scams and taxes. At some point the stone can bleed no more. How many jobs and families can be destroyed, how many homes stolen? When hopium is gone the game is over. The reality of dire poverty and violent chaos can’t be spun.

      The French are demanding a revaluation of the U.S. Dollar and a shift to China or Brazil as the standard for World Currency. The Chinese military is on the ascent and the World at large holds “We the people—” in even greater contempt than Washington thuggery (if that’s possible). In Robert Graves “I CLAUDIUS the poor Emperor at last admitted his powerlessness over the corrupt cesspool Rome had become and proclaimed:“Let the poison come out.” If the Tucson Tragedy did anything it shone a direct light on the basket of vipers coiled about our lives. For a moment the curtain of illusion parted.

    Boyarsky, Scheer, Hedges and the others, those of us at the end of our lives with small means, may be able to slip quietly into oblivion, but as Leonard Cohen said, “I’ve seen the future Brother: It is murder.”

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Napolean DoneHisPart's avatar

By Napolean DoneHisPart, January 12, 2011 at 3:36 pm Link to this comment

Until the hired-hand / managerial class in the state houses across the country STOP doing what benefits the Franco-type government ( single party authoritarian state ) seeing the masses as chattel and pawns on the chess board of life, NOTHING will stop the direction this steam locomotive is headed.

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By ray, January 12, 2011 at 2:51 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Jerry Brown for president on the Dem ticket for 2012?

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By ardee, January 12, 2011 at 8:07 am Link to this comment

G.Anderson, January 12 at 4:00 am Link to this comment

Didn’t the federal government just extend tax cuts, and also cut payroll taxes to stimulate the economy..

They extended tax cuts that have failed to make a dent in our downward spiral , because those cuts mostly benefit the wealthiest, and they have further weakened Social Security, possibly in order to achieve Bush 43’s dream of privatizing it.

California’s new governor is trying something different from the failures of the recent past.I hold little hope for Brown actually achieving his vision here but I certainly do not laud a failed federal govts. attempts to further shield the wealthy at great cost to the rest of us.

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By mandy, January 12, 2011 at 7:23 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Queenie, brilliantly said.  Thank you.

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G.Anderson's avatar

By G.Anderson, January 11, 2011 at 11:00 pm Link to this comment

Didn’t the federal government just extend tax cuts, and also cut payroll taxes to stimulate the economy..

So here comes California taking away everthing the Federal goverment just did to stimulate the economy..

It’ doesn’t make any sense. The wealthy in this country don’t need any stimulation, their having another spending spree, while the nation circles around the drain on the way down…

The wealthy in California won’t suffer from this, but everyone else will.

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Queenie's avatar

By Queenie, January 11, 2011 at 9:25 pm Link to this comment

I know what killed small business in my community - Walmart, Lowes, Target, Home Depot, etc. The prices may be cheaper there but the costs are tremendous to us all. Globalism is killing us. Too big to fail is killing us. Cutting taxes is killing us. Illegal wars are killing us. Gutting municipal and state budgets are killing us.

Tax the rich. Tax corporate and Wall St. income and lower the taxes on wages. Make business pay the penalties for moving offshore. Jail those who destroy our environment. Enact one-payer health care.
Restore our infrastructure. Lower college tuition.

Dream on.

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By robertbeal, January 11, 2011 at 7:23 pm Link to this comment

Burden shifting and defunding (disinvesting) have been going on throughout boomers’ adult lives.

The Third Way (Daley is a board member) underpins corporate-statism, in which both of the two dominant parties serve the global capitalist agenda, as evidenced by that country’s historic levels of wealth inequality and increasing household/community insecurity.

Vitriolic/violent right-wing propaganda serves to obscure this corporate-statism.

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By ardee, January 11, 2011 at 7:11 pm Link to this comment

Money spent on the military industrial complex does not return much to the economy, the enormous sums spent on the “war on terror” coupled with the thievery of our financial and insurance institution further aggravates the problem as well.

When cutbacks are discussed it is invariably the poor, the elderly, the children upon whom the burden falls. Despite the arguments of the apologists for unregulated capitalism the wealthy pay a relative pittance and reap the greatest rewards by far.

At least Governor Moonbeam has stated he will not cut K-12 education.

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G.Anderson's avatar

By G.Anderson, January 11, 2011 at 5:47 pm Link to this comment

Honesty is one thing, but realistic no.

It’s unlikely that voters will consent to higher taxes, many millions can’t pay their taxes now. How will they pay higher taxes? If taxes go up, its likely that more thousands will leave. California has been suffering from Middle Class flight for decades. There’s nothing to keep them with a home underwater.

Many cities are going bankrupt, this will put a strain on muncipal bonds, and lead to defaults.

Real Estate will continue to shrink, eroding housing prices further. Since the state is dependent on Real Estate, this will further increase California’s debt.

There are untried alternatives to deal with this states problems, such as taxing heavily all money leaving the state for Mexico, which would encourage foreign nationals to buy goods here and ship them home.

The goverment could legalize and tax Cannabis, and release, those convicted of Cannabis related crimes from jail.

Technoligical solutions could reduce the prison population, like increased use of monitoring bracelets. Dependent deuctions could also be limited to two children per family. A cap should be placed on Child Support payments, because it makes it dificult for non custodial parents to pay any taxes at all, or to acumlate real property that can be taxed. Caps should be placed on Alimony, and monetary awards in divorce, cases. Marriage should be enforced not divorce. 

I’m sure there a many other ideas out there that can be tried.

Cutting the pay of state workers is not the answer, nor is increasing tuition. Those things have a direct impact on the quality of life here, which means more people, who have the means will leave.

Without a tax base California’s problems will only get worse.

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By Alan, January 11, 2011 at 5:21 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

When Jerry Brown’s father was governor
(until Reagan came in in 1967),
education was considered a crucial and unassailable pillar of California’s future.  Now Brown Jr.
proposes to push education deeper into the
clutches of the privatizing privateers.
So much for Jerry, the savior on a galloping
horse!  The fiscal situation is dire, yes,
but has anyone ever heard the expression
“don’t throw the baby out with the bath water”?

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By rollzone, January 11, 2011 at 5:01 pm Link to this comment

hello. big government imperialism crap continually
denies over-regulatory small business strangulation
which has resulted in business closures, movement, and
resultant reductions in state revenues. reverse the
size and depth of small business regulations, and
eliminate the big business municipal perks, and the the
economies will treble with abundant revenue growth.
failing to report the reasons for small business
decline is the travesty.

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