By Donald Cohen | Published in San Diego Union-Tribune | December 19, 2003 |
In the past four years, I’ve sat on the city of San Diego’s Strategic Framework Committee, the Affordable Housing Task Force, the Workforce Investment Board, two committees at the Chamber of Commerce, the Mayor’s Committee on Smart Growth and a host of other efforts and political campaigns addressing our region’s infrastructure, transportation, health care, jobs and other needs.
And every one of these, bar none, with broad representation from businesses, developers, community leaders and labor leaders inevitably draw the same two conclusions. First, we have massively underfunded vital regional needs. Second, leadership is essential if we are to raise the resources we need to create a city that lives up to the promise of a vibrant, healthy and prosperous San Diego.
Just look at a partial list, where there is already strong consensus among leaders across diverse constituencies:
Local hospitals lose about $300 million per year because almost 400,000 San Diegans (91 percent of them working, according to the Chamber of Commerce) don’t have health insurance.
The infrastructure deficit in our urban communities (in other words money for parks, libraries, road repair, water main upgrades, etc.) is well over $1 billion and probably closer to $2 billion.
We need hundreds of millions of dollars to support initiatives to develop a large number of housing units affordable to the people who drive our trucks, clean our buildings and teach our children.
A real mass transit system (integrated rubber and rail) with a vision of getting people off the roads, out of traffic and home in time to be with their families will also cost hundreds of millions, if not billions.
We need hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new downtown library and a world-class network of branch libraries that can meet the data and information needs of our growing population.
And, of course, if we are to bring our firefighting capabilities up to a reasonable standard we need to purchase new helicopters. The city would need to hire an additional 800 firefighters just to meet the national average of 1.31 firefighters per thousand (we’re now at .8 per thousand.)
Our community colleges, colleges and universities need more resources, not less, to help our work force prepare for the jobs of the future.
Our system of social services that serves both the middle class and the working poor — from health clinics and child care facilities, to homeless services and drug rehabilitation programs — is woefully under-resourced.
This list could go on — more police protection, a new airport, more open space, brownfield cleanup, etc. (I encourage readers to add to, or subtract from, the list.)
The danger here is to reduce what should be a serious debate about priorities and resources to simple sloganeering and stunted political discussion. In fact, the real tragedy is that there isn’t much of a public debate at all. And worse yet, there is no plan of action.
Instead, many of the same constituencies, while bemoaning the lack of resources for real needs, will publicly proclaim their allegiance to the mantras of “no new taxes” or “slash the size of government.”
But a real discussion begins with the realization that there is no free lunch, that you get what you pay for, and yes, lots of things are worth paying for. Our schools are worth paying for, public safety is worth paying for, environmental cleanup and protection are worth paying for, our neighborhoods are worth paying for, health care is worth paying for, libraries are worth paying for, and much more. And many of us are willing to pay our share to make this city great.
We need a serious conversation — not just another task force — about what we want to do together as a city and region and how we can get the resources we need to pay for it. Then we need a plan of action.
Unfortunately, very few political leaders, held in check by their political consultants and the latest polling data, have the guts to stand up and lead this kind of conversation. Gray Davis’ greatest failure wasn’t the budget deficit. That was not of his making. His greatest failure was not involving all Californians in a serious discussion of our budget shortfalls and what our priorities should and could be and then making it happen.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s greatest failure wasn’t saying “I’m going to repeal the vehicle license fee.” He was a candidate trying to get elected, saying what he thought he needed to say. His greatest failure was not telling the voters that repealing the VLF also could mean cutting police, fire and other services that we all want and need.
There is no magic bullet, but we can’t do any of this without real leadership from government, business, labor and community organizations. Real leaders tell the whole truth. Real leaders take responsibility for their mistakes (we all make them). Real leaders don’t pit one need or group against another — they look for solutions that meet all our needs. We need leaders who have the guts to lead. Or at least have the guts to try.
Credit: Cohen is president of the Center on Policy Initiatives in San Diego.
Copyright Union-Tribune Publishing Co.