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Blue California Privatizes Public Parks

Once again, California is boldly going where no state has gone before. As budgetary pressures continue to dictate the political reality, the Golden State has decided to hand over the management reins of six major state parks to private companies, the Wall Street Journal reports. The move comes after a whopping 20 percent decline in annual funding for the nation’s second-largest state park system since 2009.

This is looking like a pretty smart move. The facilities as currently run are described as“covered by cobwebs and bugnests”, “prickly thistle bushes”, and “yellow caution tape”, and the parking lots, understandably, have plenty of spaces open and few visitors. A good number of parks are only raising half the revenue that the Department of Parks and Recreation spends to operate them, and big companies like American Land & Leisure see business opportunities by running parks with less overhead than the state government.

As Ruth Coleman of the Parks Department told the WSJ, the change could be an opportunity to learn “a lesson from the private sector” before the parks return to state management when the five-year contract ends.

This is why the blue model is doomed. Ideologically, California is about as blue (and as green) as you can get. It has state employee unions up the wazoo. It promises everything to everyone and its politicians are 100 percent confident that they understand the economy much better than all those ill-bred losers in the private sector.

Turning parks over to private enterprise is what most California Democrats would consider a thought crime; if Republicans did it they would be denounced as the worst kind of villains, turning poor little Bambi over to Halliburton.

But despite deploying every liberal nostrum known to man, despite all those wise ‘green jobs’ initiatives and all that ‘smart growth’, California is an economic and budgetary basket case.

And so it has no choice, and it is privatizing the administration of some of its public parks because there isn’t any money to do it the Rube Goldberg California state government way.

In deep-blue California, it’s privatize or close.

The old bureaucratic ways of doing things are going to change because they produce too much friction; they are becoming less and less efficient. Like a decayed family of Russian aristocrats, California is selling (or at least leasing) the cherry orchard to save the rest of the farm — for a while. But without much deeper reform and restructuring of the state’s government, dramatic cuts in both subsidies and taxes across the state, the dismantling of regulations (including a great many overwrought ‘green’ ones), and overhauls of school systems from K through the university system, the state will gradually get poorer and poorer.

Thinking reforms through and undertaking them sensibly and in some kind of organized way is going to be much cheaper and will serve the people of the state much better than the current method of feckless procrastination followed by frenzied budget cuts when the bailiff is pounding on the front door.

The ostrich approach to budgeting won’t work. California’s current strategy is to  keep its head resolutely stuck in the sand, fantasizing about the glamorous new high speed trains that will someday sweep across the state, waiting for those beautiful unicorns to descend from the Sierras, scattering green jobs and prosperity across its heavily regulated and highly taxed cities and farms, paying the pensions of state workers without cutting services.

Those unicorns aren’t coming, but change is. California can either surf the waves of change or be crushed by them. But what it cannot do is preserve the blue status quo. Our new vocabulary word for today is: “unsustainable.”

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  • Eurydice

    Cheer up, perhaps the lesson they’ll learn from the private sector is that the private sector does a better job. Perhaps in 5 years the parks will be running so well that the state won’t be bothered to change anything. Sometimes inertia is a useful thing.

  • chase

    Maybe some people on this blog can help me answer a question that I have been struggling with over the last year: Why is California doing so much worse than even the other blue states? While New York has problems, it seems like Gov. Coumo can at least get things done, and Massachusetts actually has an unemployment rate of 6%, which is below the national average. California, by contrast, is a basket case with overwhelming problems.

  • Bruno Behrend


    the answer lies in the public employee mindset. This goes beyond unions and encompasses the entire set of government employees.

    The more powerful they are, the more they simply will suck the state dry.

    For whatever reason, employees in NY and Massachusetts are slightly less rapacious than those in CA and IL.

    Their greed in any of the lowest performing 10 states is likely to be unsustainable in any event.

  • Eurydice

    @chase – that’s a good question. Maybe California is too big to be governable. Massachusetts is small, so it’s easy for our senate to raise taxes right and left without anybody noticing it. Plus, we’ve got certain large industries which have been growing, like high tech and health care, and our governor is always out there scouting for new business (although some of his ideas haven’t worked out so well). Our unemployment rate looks good, but there are still many who’ve given up looking for jobs – if they start looking again, the rate might go up over 7%.

  • Mrs. Davis

    @ chase

    Two reasons I can think of right away. Reliance on income tax and too much democracy.

    Because property taxes are, reasonably, limited by Prop 13, California has relied on a very progressive income tax as a source of revenue. The income of California is very volatile depending on how well movies do and how many IPOs there are in Silicon Valley. See this article for details. California sets spending levels in the fat years when the coffers are bulging and then does not cut in the lean years. This ratchet effect creates greater problems the longer recovery takes. And the jobless recoveries are lasting longer each decade.

    Too much democracy shows up in the plethora of spending that arises from bond issues passed in propositions at the general elections. Each sounds good and is supported by an interest group that makes a compelling case in focused advertising. But no one ever considers the cumulative effect of these measures.

    More speculatively, California is becoming a state of the very rich, who pay a disproportionate amount of the progressive income tax, and the poor. The rich can increasingly escape to low tax Nevada. New Yorkers can escape to marginally less taxed New Jersey or Connecticut. Not much savings for the aggravation.

    I would also suggest that manufacturing left California far later than it left the Northeast because it arrived much later and was higher tech than the industries in the Northeast which fled to the south and sunbelt in the 50’s to 70’s.

    There are undoubtedly more reasons, but those are the ones that were glaringly apparent to me when I left.

  • thibaud

    CA’s problems are many and varied. There’s the screwy governance structure that makes it extremely difficult to pass budgets, or gain consensus on critical issues.

    There’s the hourglass socio-economic structure, with an enormous and growing, primarily Mexican underclass and gazillionaire class squeezing a small and shrinking middle class.

    There’s the public employee class whose symbiotic relationship with corrupt public officials – in Gov. Gray Davis’s day, this was known as “pay to play” – and outrageous pension and pay demands make the above two problems even worse, intensifying legislative deadlock and further compressing scarce funds that could otherwise help middle class families.

    The strongest union in the state is probably the prison employees.

    A little anecdote here will give a flavor of how all the above issues come together to frustrate progress. I have kids in CA public schools. In early 2009, after hearing about $6.7 billion allocated under the ARRA/”Stimulus” to CA public schools, I inquired as to when and how much would be flowing to our own perpetually cash-strapped school district.

    After much digging, I eventually located about $4.3 billion of the $6.7b total – mainly it was to backfill special ed and programs for disadvantaged kids. None of these funds reached my school until 2011, btw, – so much for the “timely” leg of the “timely, targeted and temporary” triad.

    But no one I contacted at any level of government had even the foggiest idea of where the billions for CA public schools went: no one at the school district, or local CA gov’t, or in the CA Congressional delegation or CA assemblymen or CA Dept Education (CDE) officials.

    And then I spoke to Gov Schwarzenegger’s Chief of Staff for ARRA, a very sharp and candid young woman who confided in me that the Governator, quietly and with no public scrutiny, had diverted those, by my count, missing ARRA funds for CA public schools – a total of $1.9 b or so – to the prisons.

    So a program that could have and should pumped millions into our local economy, that could have and should have reduced unemployment in CA in 2009-10 and that, per Rahm Emanuel’s formulation, could have and should have improved education in the bargain, fell flat at the state/local level.

    This was not the fault of Arne Duncan (US Educ’n Sec’y) or Obama; it was definitely the fault of the Republican governor of California, the CDE and the incompetent CA state representatives.

    And at its root, the failure here stems from CA’s imported underclass, whose criminals are stuffing our prisons beyond the breaking point, causing the prison riots that no doubt weighed very heavily on Schwarzenegger when he decided to – quietly, out of the public eye – divert billions meant for CA public schools to CA prisons.

    Nothing better symbolizes how deeply upside-down CA is than the inversion of spending for higher ed and for prisons. In 1980, CA spent about 11% of the general fund for higher ed and ~3% on corrections. Today it’s about 7% for higher ed and 11% on corrections.

  • Mark Michael

    Spelling note: “reins” not “reigns”

    You’re writing too many Game of Thrones posts!

    [the Golden State has decided to hand over the management reigns [sic] of six major state parks]

    [VM note: Thanks. Typo fixed.]

  • Corlyss

    “the nation’s second-largest state park system since 2009.”

    Here’s a really radical thought: Ca. ought to sell off half of them to people who could develop them into usable, productive land. Half the feakin’ state is national or state park. Surely the ecoterrorists have enough to play in with half as much as they get in Ca.

  • Bruno Behrend


    I can now see where your passion comes from in defending schools, as this story illustrates the greed of public employees and their unions.

    Sorry if I don’t cry tears for the CTA and the CA schools, which I doubt are a good investment on a $ for $ allocation. (though better than prison guards is arguable.)

    As for public employees, a pox on all their houses. The whole lot should have each of their individual jobs put up for reverse private bidding until the salaries and benefits are squeezed to the bone.

    As the economy improves, and sanity returns, let people make the case for slight increases in pay.

    As for the point above about “too much democracy,” I’m skeptical. Here in IL, we have one of the most locked down, boss-driven, constitutions in the nation…

    and the same problem.

    You can shift taxes all day long, and blame electoral systems out the wazoo, but the fact is that when powerful public employee interests (unions or administrative cartels like school board associations) get their fangs into your state, they will not let go until their host is bled dry.

    They will further guard the corpse as it rots, allowing no interest to attempt a transfusion or resuscitation.

    Collective bargaining, never-ending spending ratchets, oily bond dealers, powerful unions, and administrative payroll explosions must be killed politically.

    If you aren’t killing the spending, you can’t save the state.

  • Corlyss

    @ Chase

    Ca. has let the income redistributionists control the local and state governments for decades. It’s not just the public employee unions. It’s the whole mindset of many who live there. The concept of private property is least respected in Ca. The place is overrun with illegal immigrants and minorities who are well represented by activists in the legislature and in local government and quite capable ordering everyone else to share everything with them. They have a dysfunctional legislature at the state level, and have adopted referenda as a way of letting the public make political points they can’t make with their elected representatives.

    A big worry for many of us that live east of Ca. is that the people who have created dystopia in Ca. have found they really don’t like THAT much dysfunction, so they are fleeing to neighboring states like Utah and Colorado and Arizona to start afresh by bring their stupid liberal mindsets to conservative states that don’t need their “innovations.”

  • thibaud

    Bruno – I’m not defending the CTA – I’ve come up against their absurd guild rules on repeated occasions involving my efforts to get external service providers into my kids’ school, and finally gave it up entirely.

    I don’t have any great love for my kids’ teachers either. But I do recognize the extraordinarily difficult position they and the principal are in, not least because of the underclass kids in the district – and also because of all the nutty parents, each with her/his own hobbyhorse, be it immunizations or whatever.

    At bottom, where you and I differ is that, as a parent, I really don’t expect all that much from my kids’ school. I know that their education depends far more upon what we do at home, on their tutors, and on their interactions with peers than it does with their classroom experiences.

    IOW I have reasonable expectations of what the schools can and cannot accomplish. We hire tutors where we can afford it (go with East Europeans: superior quality, very low cost) and spend a lot of time teaching, supervising, helping, nudging etc our kids at home.

  • Jim.


    California is still reeling from the “peace dividend” at the end of the Cold War. Both LA and Silicon Valley have been losing middle-class Defense jobs (particularly in Aerospace) for decades. The tech bubble obscured, aggravated, and profited by this.

    It obscured the fact that certain types of jobs (blue collar, but many white collar engineering as well) were simply going away. Aggravated, by the fact that the real estate bubble drove up labor prices, which caused many jobs to get sent to Colorado and other points East. Profited, because many ambitious and talented Defense employees saw the writing on the wall and jumped at Tech Bubble opportunites.

    But the Tech Bubble popped, and while some engineers returned to Defense with their tails between their legs, there weren’t jobs for everyone, and some have been unemployed for quite some time now… or they’ve sought opportunities outside the state.

    BRAC did its bit, certainly, and the fact that California had many WWII-legacy bases (as we should, for heaven’s sake — we’re most of America’s Pacific coast, south of Alaska — I wonder if the Pivot will recognize that and help us out?) socked us with some “disparate impact” from those cuts.

    We’ll see what the future holds. Some Democrats realize which side of the bread the butter is on, but the fact that we haven’t been able to get rid of Boxer for years has taken its toll.

  • thibaud

    @ Jim – the decline of defense industries in CA seems symptomatic of another problem, the huge misallocation of capital and talent into timewaster apps and consumer technologies and away from really hard and important problems in areas like materials science, energy, bio-tech research and healthcare.

    I work closely with a semiconductor exec who’s now leading a startup focused on energy-efficient lighting that uses breakthrough technologies at the cutting edge of materials science.

    He asked me whether he was missing the boat by not joining the mobile-social-virtual application gold rush. I told him I thought the opposite, that materials science and other core sciences focused on the really big, hard problems were *far* more important to the nation and society than all the timewaster Faceball/Fishville apps.

    A pity that our society directs so many resources and capital, human and financial, into the latter while largely neglecting the former.

  • John Minehan

    I have never understood why an government is in the park business; a COMPLETE waste of taxpayer money.

  • Jim.

    @thibaud –

    Timewaster apps are just another extension of the entertainment industry. Is it too bad that people want to spend time and money on those sorts of things? In some ways, sure, but when unemployment is a problem it’s very nice to have a voluntarily available revenue stream that can be picked up by a bunch of unemployed college grads who are literate enough to read an O’Reilly and logical enough to apply it.

    If you’ll notice, investment money hasn’t exactly showered itself onto either Facebook or Zynga — and it’s not as if the industry is going to sustain lots of investment either, unless someone comes up with a genre of “casual triple-A” games, which is possibly a contradiction in terms.

    It’s a fad. Angry Birds is the Pac-Man of the 10’s. This too shall pass.

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