Decades ago, California could count on population growth to get it through tough economic times. A steady influx of young newcomers from other states translated into flourishing businesses and bulging government coffers. In recent years, however, California has been sending more people to other states than it has been getting from them. Immigration has kept the total population from shrinking, but the boom days are over. After the 2010 census, California gained no seats in the US House of Representatives for the first time since statehood in 1850.
Moreover, the state’s birth rate is plunging. In the near term, this trend will ease some of the pressure on California schools, but in the longer run, it will mean fewer people entering the workforce just as baby boomers are retiring from it.
One could pile on additional data about poverty and unemployment. The key point is that population and economic growth have slowed. And because the state is so large, bad times in California could affect the nation as a whole.
Like the federal government and many other states, California will have to curb additional spending and debt. To his credit, the governor spoke in his State of the State about preparing for the “leaner times that will surely come.” That same speech, though, raised serious doubts about whether he really meant it. He proudly noted that California is going forward with a huge high-speed rail project, even though critics across the political spectrum have pointed out that it is ridiculously unnecessary, exorbitantly expensive, and environmentally harmful.
Underlying the state’s fiscal malaise is a severe shortage of political accountability. Elected officials have little incentive to make tough decisions, because they pay no political price for evading them.
Accountability requires that voters know what the politicians are doing. In California, they generally do not. In a survey last year, only 16 percent of adults said that they knew a lot about how state and local governments spend and raise money, and 38 percent said they knew some. And even among those who said they had a lot or some knowledge, only 18 percent could correctly identify the biggest area of state spending (K-12 education).