Tuesday, January 13, 2009

People Don't Care Yet

Those who read this site understand the effects of a budget crisis - on teachers, firefighters, cops, state employees, public health clinics, practically everything that regular citizens interface with on an almost daily basis. I write about the real-world consequences often. However, it's very easy to be oblivious to these facts, especially when daily life is so understandably difficult that just getting through it is a struggle. It's hard to know for sure, but this SacBee article is probably pretty accurate.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is to deliver his State of the State message Thursday in hopes of galvanizing public opinion to pressure lawmakers to agree on a budget to keep California's government from going broke.

But his challenge comes as many Californians are too busy and too worried about effects of the larger national economic calamity to be consumed with details of budget wrangling in Sacramento.

Sacramento lobbyists, state worker unions and advocates for health, education and welfare may think of little more than the state's financial mess. Yet the Capitol isn't being overwhelmed by calls or letters from average Californians demanding a budget [...]

"Certainly voters are aware of the (state budget) problem," said California Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo. "But it hasn't really reached their own pocketbooks or own lives in a direct way. You're just waiting for the train wreck to happen.

"At the point when the state stops paying its bills or starts issuing IOUs to creditors, that's when this will really hit the fan."

I wouldn't discount this. People have a hard time connecting the specific hardships they face to a specific failure of the state legislature - many couldn't tell you the responsibilities between the state and the feds. In fact, as economic anxiety increases, people retreat more into self-preservation mode and neglect the larger issues at play.

There are a variety of reasons for this. No public demystification of the process is certainly one. Without a responsible media detailing the consequences instead of the "pox on all of their houses" attitude that is neither informative or true, I wouldn't expect citizens to comprehend this very well. The state party and individual lawmakers have a communications role to play in this as well - just because it isn't election time doesn't mean it's not a time for effective communication to people outside the base on what is happening and why. The veil of secrecy around Sacramento disheartens people who might otherwise believe that their knowledge of it would make a difference. In addition, the relatively few members of the legislature (40 Senators for a population of 38 million is bigger than a Congressional district) further dislocates and alienates the population from their government.

As DiCamillo says, when those expecting a tax refund get an IOU, when the state files for bankruptcy (a very real possibility), there will be some recognition. And the dynamic of the state will change, perhaps quite drastically. People will want to find answers, maybe a scapegoat. Hopefully, people are thinking about that moment. It will either be an opportunity or a prelude to a nightmare.

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