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Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 1/19/2009 [Archive]

California bleedin' -- Opinion

California has apparently turned itself into Pennsylvania.

It's still our biggest, wealthiest state with 38 million people -- one in eight Americans.

It still has the sunshine, the beaches and the magnificent natural beauty that for 150 years have attracted and captured millions of migrants from New York and Pittsburgh to Des Moines and Mexico City.

So why, for the fourth straight year, has the number of people moving from California to states like Florida and Arizona exceeded the number moving into California from other states? And why was the annual net-exodus rate even higher in the 1990s?

Immigrants, legal and illegal, and a birth boom among mostly Latinos have kept California's total population growing every year. But last year its net loss of 144,000 in state-to-state migration exceeded every other state's. No. 2 was New York, which lost about 160,000.

A lot of Californians are moving back East today (if they can unload their devalued houses) for the same reason they and their ancestors moved out West in the first place -- to escape oppressive taxes, dead-end schools, traffic congestion and a breakdown of basic government services.

Sixty years ago, California was not just an empty natural paradise. It was a role model of good governance and opportunity.

Compared to the rest of the country, especially to over-governed, over-politicized, economically declining states like Pennsylvania, post-World War II California was a booming, upbeat utopia with lots of good jobs, cheap housing, low taxes and relatively few economic, cultural or moral regulations.

Back then, as urbanologist and longtime Southern California resident Joel Kotkin recently pointed out in a long article titled "Sundown for California," the state government was a positive force in the economic and social life of California that "laid the foundation for its remarkable ascendancy."

Sacramento operated in a pragmatic, nonpartisan, businesslike but progressive way, Kotkin says. While California boomed, the state government concentrated on keeping the public infrastructure (freeways, universities and water projects) in synch with the growing population and making sure it didn't do anything stupid to thwart business growth.

California is far different today. It's obviously a victim of global economic forces beyond its control, not to mention Washington-made fiscal and monetary malfeasance.

But Kotkin blames much of his state's fall from gold to rust on its own political culture. Over the last 30 years, he says, it has grown masochistically hostile to business and is now a rat's nest of partisan, liberal special-interest-group politics that any observer of Harrisburg or Albany could recognize.

Today California is helplessly trying to deal with a budget deficit of $42 billion-plus, a bloated and overpaid government work force, a poorly maintained infrastructure, collapsing housing prices, an unemployment rate of nearly 9 percent, a flood of illegal aliens and some of the highest mortgage foreclosure rates in the country.

Once the Golden State was famous for things like inventing new technologies, incubating our pop culture and being an irresistible mecca for young and restless dreamers. Now it's famous for insane politics, pioneering silly/costly environmental regulations and crippling taxes.

In 60 years, California's political "leaders" have done so much damage to their sunny paradise that they've made rusty old states like Pennsylvania look good again.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at bsteigerwald@tribweb.com. ©Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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