IGNORE ANTS: Ever been bit by a dead dog? Stung by a dead bee? Guess what? You just were. And the Grinch just stole Christmas even though it’s only the beginning of summer. I’m speaking, of course, about the Santa Barbara News-Press, now approaching the sixth anniversary of its much fabled meltdown, when most editors and reporters either quit or were fired over ethical differences with owner Wendy P. McCaw. I don’t have the energy to summon the details of Miss P’s pathological dyspepsia right now. But if the New York Times is known as the “Gray Lady” of journalism, the News-Press should be tagged as the Crazy Aunt Locked in the Closet. Santa Barbarans have responded accordingly. Before the meltdown, the News-Press’ daily circulation was in the neighborhood of 45,000; today, it’s in the ballpark of 22,000. You do the math.
With these numbers, it’s tempting to dismiss the News-Press as a complete and total nonentity. Who can forget, for example, the breathless front-page exposé the paper recently ran about a local grade-school boy who — to the horror of his father — painted his fingernails in class? As syphilitically deranged as the News-Press might be, the fact remains it still has impact. While vastly diminished, it has just enough influence at the margins to really screw things up. Sometimes that’s all it takes to inflict major damage. Look at Tuesday night’s election results. Yes, it was wonderfully hilarious how the News-Press endorsed Orly Taitz, the deranged Orange County dentist who clearly sniffs too much of her own laughing gas and insists — certified birth certificates notwithstanding — President Barack Obama is a foreigner. Yes, it was fabulously ridiculous how out-of-touch the News-Press endorsements proved to be — yet again — with how the community actually voted. But I ain’t laughing. That’s because there’s nothing the least bit amusing about the $4 million in property tax funds that will not be available to the local public school programs next year — and for the three years after that — because the News-Press saw fit to oppose Measures X and W. Those measures, it should be duly noted, only lost by the hairs of their chinny-chin-chins. But without that money, school administrators will be forced to cut, hack, mutilate, and spindle some very successful math, science, arts, and music programs. Perhaps Wendy P. McCaw, famously having no children of her own, need not be concerned about what happens to the children of everybody else. But for the rest of us, the loss of Measures X and W will be nothing less than catastrophic.
That $4 million would have helped inoculate S.B. students from the $20 million district administrators have already cut since the stock market crashed. Governor Moonbeam, bracing for more budgetary bad news, just sneaked language into his proposed state budget that would cut high school science requirements by half.
It was in this context that the S.B. Education Foundation proposed the two modest property tax bumps known as X and W. Written into the measures were opt-out provisions for people without kids in the schools, stingy misanthropes, and others claiming an undue financial burden. Structurally, tax increases like these face an exceptional burden. Simple majority rules do not apply; a two-thirds “supermajority” is required to pass. That’s really hard. Even though Assemblymember Das Williams was running against such an utter nonentity that even he couldn’t remember his opponent’s name, Williams only won with 58 percent. By contrast, Measure W won 64.3 percent of the votes, but still lost. Likewise, X was scuttled after having garnered 65 percent of the vote. In elections such as these, any opposition — no matter how half-baked — is fatal. While it’s technically true the local Republican machine opposed the bonds, its leader saw fit never to mention this embarrassing fact, not even in email dispatches to members. While News-Press columnist Lanny Ebenstein affirmatively supported the bonds — when not otherwise blaming the collapse of Western civilization on public-employee unions — it was the News-Press anti-endorsement that killed them. The bond measures needed 550 and 145 more votes, respectively, to get over the two-thirds hump. And that’s roughly what a News-Press endorsement is worth. Countywide, nutball Birther Orly Taitz managed to attract 2,037 in her quest for U.S. Senate. Based on Santa Barbara’s record-setting consumption of psychotropic medications, I’m guessing one-third of those votes would have been cast no matter what. Of the rest, about half probably came outside the News-Press’ dwindling circulation. But that leaves just enough left over to hold Wendy and the News-Press responsible for much of the mayhem about to befall our schools.
In this context it’s worth noting that the $1 million in attorney’s fees that former News-Press editor Jerry Roberts — whose resignation six years ago triggered the meltdown — was awarded in his ongoing litigation with Wendy P. was recently upheld by the state Supreme Court. Wendy can — and no doubt will — appeal to the U.S. Supremes, but they’d have to be smoking bath salt to hear her case. It’s likely Wendy will simply refuse to pay. That’s just what she does. (She just got sued last week, for example, for refusing to pay attorney Barry Cappello — her legal barracuda during the height of the uproar — the $411,000 she still owes him. And even God pays his legal bills to Barry Cappello.) When that happens, Roberts will be entitled to enforce his collection by placing a lien on McCaw’s property. He could go after the printing-press property in Goleta, worth roughly $9 million, but I’d suggest he try to impound the historic News-Press building itself, worth in the neighborhood of $6 million.
I hope Roberts can act before the school district places another parcel tax on the ballot. And I’m wishing enough last-minute provisional ballots come in to put Measures X and W miraculously over the top. Wishing and hoping rarely get the job done, so in the meantime, I’ll be on the look-out for dead bees.