August 29, 2007
Every time I think Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is starting to get a clue how to lead, he snaps me back to reality. This time it was his boneheaded elimination of a program that saves money, draws raves and helps thousands of poor souls lead productive lives.
But before I get to Big Boy's blunder, I want to tell you about a man named Bill Compton.
From Los Angeles to Sacramento, people have been calling and e-mailing me the last couple of days with tributes to William H. Compton Jr., whose battle with schizophrenia helped inspire the program Schwarzenegger axed.
Compton, 61, died Monday of cancer at a hospital in Anaheim. A theater arts major who had managed theaters in several cities, Compton ended up living on the streets of Hollywood after being stricken with late-onset schizophrenia in his 40s.
Early in 1990, he happened into Project Return, a network of more than 100 social and advocacy clubs in Los Angeles County sponsored by the National Mental Health Assn. of Greater Los Angeles. Members help each other live independently, go to school, get jobs and find professional help that will advance their recovery.
Less than two years after Compton joined up, the mental health association's president, Richard Van Horn, decided to bump the professional staff and turn Project Return's administration over to the clients, with Compton as director. Some thought it was a risky move, but Compton made Van Horn look like a genius.
"I think my proudest moment with Bill was in June 2001," said Van Horn, who helped present Compton with one of his many national honors. "After receiving the award, Bill was to ring the 300-pound bell that was cast from shackles that had bound mental patients to the walls of state hospitals up until the 1940s. I still see the glistening of tears in Bill's eyes as he rang the bell, proclaiming his own recovery and advocacy for others."
Stephen Mayberg, director of the state Department of Mental Health, fondly recalled Compton's many missions to Sacramento, where he would lobby for mental health clients to have a seat at the table when public policy is planned.
"His legacy will live on as we continue to lead transformation of mental health services in California," Mayberg said.
If so, it will be no thanks to the governor.
Bill Compton's Project Return helped pave the way for AB 2034, which, until its funding was cut by Schwarzenegger last week, was keeping nearly 5,000 people off the streets of California with a smart mix of housing and all the necessary support services.
The governor's staff has argued that the program can be funded with other revenues, such as money from the voter-approved Mental Health Services Act (Proposition 63). But state Sen. Darrell Steinberg, who introduced AB 2034 when he was in the Assembly, said the latter ploy is both illegal and a subversion of voter intent.
"I was sick to my stomach for two days," said Steinberg, who believed until last week that the governor would be on his side, particularly since the program has substantially reduced hospitalization, incarceration and criminal justice costs for its participants.
Steinberg said Prop. 63 funds will be used to cover the program temporarily, so 4,700 current clients are not abandoned. But that will mean other programs go begging. Meanwhile, Steinberg said he would press for a lawsuit to reverse the governor's cut.
If the governor was looking for savings, he could have taken his scalpel to an estimated $45-million tax break for purchases of yachts, planes and RVs.
To find out just how the break works, I called a yacht company in Marina del Rey. A sales rep told me I would have to buy the boat outside of California, but there's a loophole available in that regard. Technically, he said, if I took ownership of the boat three miles off shore, I'd be out of the state.
In other words, if I wanted to buy a $100,000 sailboat, I would sign the contract at the shop in Marina del Rey and then navigate around the tax bite with a little vacation.
"We would effect delivery out of state, three miles out, with a hired skipper who would take you out," the salesman explained. If I then sailed down to Mexico for 90 days, I'd avoid the sales tax of $8,250.
That's roughly the cost, Van Horn told me, of keeping someone in the AB 2034 program for a year, if you count the matching Medi-Cal funds.
May Bill Compton rest in peace.