Is there a political wildfire that needs to be put out?

RANCHO SANTA FE, Ca., May 19, 2014 – The San Diego area recently made national headlines when it was ravaged by 10 wildfires. In an incredible display of courage and professional skill, firefighters and other first responders overcame strong Santa Ana winds and extremely arid conditions to battle the elements to a draw. The question is whether they will do as well against their next potential adversary; one that can be far more ruthless and cruel than anything Mother Nature can offer: Politicians running for office.

Just as there is a “Red Flag” warning posted when the conditions are ripe for wildfires, there should be a “Green Flag” warning posted in election years when elected officials are inclined to use firefighters and police officers as pawns in their political games to mask fiscal irresponsibility. The threat advisory should be extended to teachers as well as they are also subject to attack.

The reason our firefighters, police officers, and teachers are vulnerable to such abuse is because they are essential members of our society. The first responders keep us safe, while the educators help hone the fundamental skills of our future generations of leaders. Both groups add stability to our society and provide necessary services, which makes them the perfect target for politicians.

The game of high-stakes politics combines chicanery with fear. In an effort to distract attention from the root cause of our economic challenges, politicians are skilled at diverting our attention by sounding alarms that nearly lead us to panic.

How often have you heard politicians suggest that if a certain bond issue doesn’t pass or if taxes aren’t increased, the State will have no recourse other than to lay off firefighters, police officers, and teachers?

Have you ever wondered why no other less intrusive measures can be taken? Perhaps eliminating spendthrift programs that haven’t delivered upon expected results would be a good starting point. Reducing administrative staff might also be worth considering before cutting essential services. Restricting travel among our public officials to other States and countries might even be appropriate to curb waste although it is difficult to imagine how we could survive without those boondoggle junkets to senseless conventions and foreign lands.

However, that wouldn’t be “politics as usual,” and we wouldn’t feel threatened to capitulate to the demand for more money. No, it makes far more sense to suggest that the firefighters and police officers, who keep us safe, and the teachers, who instruct our children, have their jobs terminated if taxes can’t be raised and bond issues can’t be passed… at least it does to incumbents.

Of course, not every State will experience this ploy this year nor will every politician default to it. However, the odds rise with respect to the economic and political instability of the State (i.e., the greater the instability, the more likely we will be threatened with a reduction in essential services).

Let’s consider California as an example.

California is a microcosm of the United States. If it were a country, its GDP would rank eighth in the world; essentially putting it on par with the Russian Federation without having to annex Crimea to do it. While the Obama Administration has imposed economic sanctions upon Russia with regard to the latter issue, it need not take similar action to disrupt California’s financial performance because the Golden State has demonstrated the ability to curb its own growth without any outside assistance.

Of course, there are outside influences that are willing to help the cause. Texas Governor Rick Perry, looking theatrically studious in his new glasses, visited California apparently to go car shopping. He returned months later with Toyota… not a car, but the entire Toyota Motor Corporation’s U.S. Headquarters, which had resided in California since 1957. This followed a similar announcement by Occidental Petroleum Corporation in February of this year.

Even without Governor Perry’s help, California has been able to decimate its once proud economy.

Its unemployment is currently 7.8%, which is nearly 24% higher than the national average. It also boasts a budget deficit of approximately $70 billion.

Speaking of $70 billion: That is roughly what California spends on welfare (by far, the highest amount in the Nation). Its welfare program pays the equivalent to $11.59 per hour, which is more than President Obama’s proposed minimum wage increase of $10.10. As a result, almost 34% of our country’s welfare recipients reside in California even though the State only hosts 12% of our Nation’s population. Correspondingly, Healthcare and Social Assistance represent the second largest industry in the State according to the most recent Census.

Naturally, Government is California’s largest industry, with about 2.5 million employees. To fund that industry, the State spends about $484 billion of the $414 billion it raises in taxes, fines, fees, etc. Since the first number is larger than the second, California operates at a deficit. This leads to an $11,000+ debt per citizen. When you add that to the National debt per citizen of nearly $60,000, a California resident effectively bears a $71,000 debt on behalf of his or her State and Federal Government. If you distributed the debt among actual taxpayers in California, the number would nearly double.

Then, add the highest personal State income tax rate in the Nation along with the highest fuel tax and the eighth highest combined sales tax rate, and, as the saying goes, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

As a result, every few years politicians trot out the tired threat of having to reduce the number of firefighters, police officers, and teachers. Perhaps politicians take their cues from California’s 12th District Representative in Washington, D.C., Nancy Pelosi. In September of 2013, Minority Leader Pelosi told us: “The cupboard is bare. There’s (sic) no more cuts to make. It’s really important that people understand that.”

If that’s true of our Federal Government, it’s plausible that it might also be true of our State Governments. Thus, our elected officials are forced to jettison those who protect us and our property. Perhaps teachers are used as a political trading chip as well so that future generations will remain ignorant enough to embrace this senseless rhetoric.

Republicans occasionally use this threat to underscore the need for severe budgetary cuts. Democrats use the threat to rally the support of the associated unions. Neither is serious about actually cutting the forces of these groups; at least, they shouldn’t be unless they also have a plan to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of these critical resources.

Interestingly, the Constitution of the United States provides excellent guidance with respect to how our States should address the issue of fiscal responsibility. Article I, Section 8 describes the purposes for which taxes may be collected and applied. The two major responsibilities are “to provide for the common Defence (sic) and general Welfare of the United States.”

What if States were to apply those same standards? (Note: This is not to imply that our Federal Legislative Branch actually complies with these limitations or even pays deference to the fact that they exist; it only is meant to suggest that the limitations have merit.)

Firefighters, police officers, and other first responders clearly “provide for the common defense” of our persons and our property. The recent wildfires in the San Diego area represent a perfect example of the incredible value these dedicated individuals bring to their communities.

Correspondingly, teachers “provide for the general welfare” of our children, our communities, and our future. Can our educational system be improved? Yes, but don’t place the blame on the majority of the teachers who have to operate within it. Reserve that criticism for the administrators and organizations that have lost sight of the system’s mission to do what’s in the best interest of the students from an educational perspective.

Instead of feigning an attack on firefighters, police officers, and teachers this time, perhaps California’s political leadership will try to identify true areas of waste as well as projects that fall short of their promise. One shining example would be the debacle surrounding its high-speed rail project.

The original project was to provide a high-speed rail system that would transport people between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 2 hours and 40 minutes. A referendum was passed based on these promises and the economic and environmental benefits they would provide.

Unfortunately, the estimated cost of the system has skyrocketed from $33 billion in 2008 to a current price of $68.5 billion. Its route has also been revised to include the Central Valley. This necessitates a “blended system” that incorporates the use of old track and commuter trains which, in turn, prevents the system from delivering the 220 mph service the referendum promised.

In review: the high-speed rail will cost more than twice the amount of money the voters approved, it won’t run directly between the cities the voters were told, and it will be anything but high-speed. Yet, “the powers that be” will try to pretend the changes are meaningless and generally reflect the will of the People as witnessed by their passing of the original referendum.

In the meantime, firefighters and police officers will have to beg to fund the assets and resources they need to “provide for the common defense,” and serious teachers will have to buy their own supplies and volunteer their time to “provide for the general welfare” of the students our State and local governments have abandoned.

Last week, California witnessed professionals in action: Firefighters who risked their own lives to protect the property and lives of others and police officers who blocked roads and patrolled evacuated neighborhoods to protect the property and lives of others. Yet, they are likely to be used (along with teachers) as political pawns as the November elections draw near by politicians who seem more inclined to protect their own property and lifestyles than those of their constituents.

Democrats have been the majority party in California for over forty consecutive years. Republicans enjoy similar longevity in other States. Barring criminal prosecutions, blatant ethics violations that aren’t swept under the rug, or unbiased redistricting, it is almost impossible to unseat a majority incumbent in these States.

Top Two initiatives will only make a difference if independent voters can be lured to participate in Primary elections. Otherwise, election cycles will only remind us of the movie Groundhog Day.

Perhaps we can take a page from the playbooks of our valiant first responders: Recognize that we are up against a political force of Nature that is running out of control; develop a strategy of containment; pray that ordinary citizens listen to reason and exercise common sense; and ultimately, “put out” the elected officials who have been burning through our tax dollars.


T.J. O’Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors. In 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States and the first nominee of the Whig Party in over 150 years.

This article first appeared in T.J. O’Hara’s recurring column, A Civil Assessment, in the Communities Digital News (CDN).