When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asked Congress the other day to authorize a new round of military base closings and consolidations in 2017, alarm bells should have gone off in many parts of California.
This state has been victimized more than any other in the past two such rounds, with profound economic effects in many parts of the state.
Sure, there have been positive new uses of some old bases, from parkland in the Presidio of San Francisco to a college campus on the former site of Fort Ord near Monterey. But the jobs lost when those bases closed, plus the ones lost from the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, the El Toro Marine Air Station, March Air Force Base, the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo and many others, still have not been replaced.
Nor have the ripple effects stopped, as many surviving businesses near those bases now are far less profitable than before, employing many thousands fewer than they once did.
This new potential round of closures comes at a particularly dicey time for California, which has lost or is about to lose some of the veteran members of Congress who might have fought for a fair deal for their state.
Of course, there’s little evidence that the likes of Democrats Henry Waxman and George Miller, or Republicans Gary Miller and Buck McKeon (current chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, no less) ever did much to spare California pain.
The base closures are one reason California ranks 43rd among all states in federal per capita spending, getting back just 78 cents for every dollar its taxpayers put into the U.S. treasury.
Those veteran congressmen and the rest of the state’s 53-member largest-in-the-nation House contingent couldn’t even get a single Californian onto the Base Realignment and Closure Commission in the early 2000s. In the previous closure rounds, that commission each time presented Congress with one complete package of cuts, with the lawmakers committed to a yes-or-no vote on the entire thing, no amendments allowed.
Just as it was almost inconceivable at one time to imagine the Army’s huge training facility at Fort Ord disappearing, so it now seems impossible that the Marine Corps’ giant Camp Pendleton just north of San Diego could be closed.
But the real estate on which that base sits is so prime that a federal commission might decide to take the money and let it be built over, as seems the likely fate for the mostly vacant former El Toro base in Orange County, now that park proposals for that land have been thwarted.
With U.S. policy leaning against new desert wars, will Fort Irwin and its desert warfare training facility be scrapped, some of the land perhaps to be used for trendy solar thermal electricity projects?
The last two times around, Californians in Congress overwhelmingly backed both the creation of BRAC and its plans. It’s no coincidence that once the closures in those plans occurred, California dropped 20 places in its rank among the states in federal spending. Meanwhile, the last U.S. Census showed Texas, site of the Army’s troubled Fort Hood, now home to much of the training that once took place in California, got $19.7 billion in military salaries in 2010 compared with just $10.3 billion for California.
Does anyone doubt that an extra $9 billion in personal income being spent and re-spent in California might have some effect on the state’s chronic unemployment? Similarly, is there any doubt all that extra income had something to do with Texas weathering the Great Recession better than many other places?
The upshot of all this is that Californians in Congress must make sure any new round of cuts does not again make this state its prime victim. One way to do this would be to insist that the House and Senate get some control over who serves on the next BRAC commission and that any new plan not be presented on an all-or-nothing basis.
But Californians in Congress have rarely shown much appetite for working together for the welfare of the whole state. This has to change, or we could see a California with no Seabee base in Ventura County, no Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield and no Lemoore Naval Air Station in the Central Valley. And as many as 120,000 more related jobs gone, as happened in the last round.
Thomas Elias is a California author. Reach him at [email protected]