Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Turning gold into lead

One of the projects my company is working on involves training 10 young people (ages 16 to 20) in writing, setting them up on a blog, and having them go out and report on city-funded cultural activities and social service programs in the city of Santa Monica. All this week I’ve been driving to Santa Monica to run workshops with these youths. I like this project immensely: it involves young people, and writing, and getting the word out about arts activities and about programs that help people who need a little help.

What I don’t like is the commute between Burbank and Santa Monica. The distance is about 25 miles, and no matter what time of day I’m going there or coming back, it takes about 25 years. Yesterday’s workshop was actually in Marina del Rey (about 4 miles further). It took me an hour and a half to get back to Burbank. Imagine driving for an hour and a half at 15 miles per hour. I would have pulled over to go see a movie — as I did on this infuriating day — except lately that makes no difference; if it’s daylight, traffic is impenetrable. Plus, I wanted to get home for my daughter’s 10th birthday party. I got home all right, finally, in a miserable mood for being boxed in on all sides by cars and crawling along for ever. This must be what trench warfare felt like. News reporting would have you believe that people are abandoning their cars for bicycles because of high gasoline prices; I haven’t seen that, but I’d like to.

What are elected leaders in California doing about the traffic situation, which is clogging our roadways and choking our economy? Little or nothing.

We also have a little deficit here in the Golden State. It doesn’t matter what the number is (it’s massive); by the time I type it in here, it will have metastasized further. At various times recently it’s been pegged at $8 billion (that’s “billion” with a “b,” please note) or $12 billion, or $16 billion, or any number between, or larger. Here’s your first indication that the people running the state aren’t doing a good job: They have no idea what the size of the budget deficit is. Without an understanding of the problem, how can they be expected to fix it? The deadline for a new budget — one theoretically in balance — was July 1st. They missed the deadline. So here’s what they did: They went on break. That’s right. They left Sacramento to return to their (other) homes. Anyone doing business with the state of California right now isn’t getting paid — except, I’m sure, for the people on the state payroll, i.e., those people who didn’t come up with a budget.

Someone up in Sacramento — not sure who; finger-pointing varies — is proposing raiding embargoed funds. These are the funds that a plurality of voters (not including me) voted as set-asides for specific projects. I almost always vote against these funds because they almost always get raided for something completely unrelated to the proposed project — and this is something I told one of the governor’s emissaries recently when I led a little charge against one of them. And now, here we go again. What are some of the funds being raided? You guessed it: highway funds, originally intended to ease traffic congestion.

Aren’t ironies wonderful?

I don’t think that all problems are easily or well solved. I do think, though, that everything is improvable. Will California, where in addition to other problems 25% of high schoolers are dropouts (while we have some of the nation’s best-funded school districts), ever again earn the sobriquet of “The Golden State”? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t expect a return to the past so many people who have lived here longer than I have are yearning for. But I do expect people who are public servants, and well-paid ones to boot, to do the job they were elected to do. And although I know several of these legislators personally and like them greatly, I’m of a mind right now that all of them across the board ought to be sent packing. And I’m starting to wonder if that isn’t just what voters might finally do.

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