As a species, politicians love news conferences and other events that celebrate new programs or public works projects.
The syndrome may explain why officials often ignore long-festering problems in existing programs, such as the Employment Development Department and the bullet train project. Simply making things work better doesn’t have the political appeal of something new and shiny.
Gov. Gavin Newsom is particularly prone to the affliction, declaring early on his love for “big, hairy audacious goals” and later adding, “I’d rather be accused of (having) those audacious stretch goals than be accused of timidity.”
That proclivity led him, as a candidate, to pledge that he would try to solve California’s housing crisis by building 3.5 million new houses and apartments by 2025 and make California the first state to embrace single-payer health care.
Later, when both proved to be unattainable, he declared them to be “aspirational” rather than firm promises.
Newsom’s tendency toward the grandiose was very evident this month when he once again shunned a traditional State of the State address to the Legislature and instead toured the state for serial announcements.
One is converting San Quentin prison into a laboratory to test whether a softer approach to preparing felons for release, modeled after a program in Norway, will be more effective in steering them away from crime. Newsom boasted that the renamed San Quentin Rehabilitation Center will be the “most innovative rehabilitation facility” in the nation, displaying another characteristic, his obsession with being the first to do something.
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Newsom’s Splashy Homeless Proposal
The splashiest of Newsom’s new things is a multi-billion-dollar plan to house thousands of homeless and mentally ill Californians in new facilities that would combine shelter with treatment for their afflictions.
The project would be financed mostly by a bond issue in the $3-5 billion range to be placed before voters next year and would be an adjunct to Newsom’s “Care Court” program that allows the mentally ill to be compelled to accept treatment.
“It’s unacceptable what we’re dealing with at scale now in California,” Newsom said. “We have to address and come to grips with the reality of mental health in our state and in our nation.”
Even if implemented as hoped, the two mental health projects would make only a relatively tiny dent in the state’s homelessness crisis. California still lacks a comprehensive approach and is mired in finger-pointing among state, county and city officials over who’s responsible for dealing with it.
Billions of dollars have been spent by all three levels of California government, plus no small amount of federal funds, but the number of unhoused Californians continues to climb, officially approaching 200,000 but probably much higher.
The exchanges between Newsom and county officials have been especially pointed. He’s accused counties of dragging their feet on effectively spending state grant money while county officials say they need a dedicated and predictable revenue stream for long-term programs.
As Newsom was touring the state, the California State Association of Counties, or CSAC, issued what it said is a comprehensive approach to homelessness embracing housing, social services, education and employment with clear lines of responsibility and accountability for outcomes.
“No one level of government is solely responsible for the homelessness crisis,” CSAC president Chuck Washington, a Riverside County supervisor, said in a statement. “But any and all efforts to address homelessness will fail without a comprehensive system in which roles and responsibilities are clear.”
Fundamentally, CSAC is calling for making the systems and services already in place work better. That doesn’t have much political appeal but is, to use one of Newsom’s favorite words, “foundational” for progress on the homelessness crisis.
About the Author
Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. For more columns by Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.
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