Thursday, July 2, 2009

State's most conservative county uses much cash

Sprawling across the northeastern corner of California, this huge, thickly forested county with more cows than people epitomizes the Western frontier - and what seems to be a two-faced political ideology.

Modoc has the highest Republican registration of any county in California, it unfailingly elects anti-tax Republicans to office, and the vote here against last month's ballot measure that would have raised a variety of taxes was one of the most lopsided in the state. And yet, per capita, Modoc County gets more state taxpayer dollars than all but one of California's 58 counties.

The prevailing attitude among the right-wing ranchers and modern hippies who define Modoc County is of fierce self-reliance - but more people here than just about anywhere else depend on welfare checks of some kind to get by.

So with state Republicans blocking new taxes and insisting on deep cuts in taxpayer-funded services, does that make this most solid of GOP bases politically conflicted? Or, worse, just plain ignorant?

No way, say the cattlemen and the hippies. Most folks up here will tell you that no matter who is in office or what the big-city politicians do, the dearest wish of anyone living in Modoc is to be left alone - except for a little help for core needs like hospitals and schools.

And if you cut off our funding even for that, they say, we won't like it - but we'll get by. We're independent.

It's a frontier thing.

Split but not split

Ken McGarva and Tina Hodge will both tell you with equal ardor that government should stay out of their faces. But you wouldn't know they could agree by looking at them.

McGarva is a cowboy. The real kind, one who ropes and brands his cattle in the dot-in-the-road town of Likely. At 70, he loathes liberal politics.

Hodge is a back-to-the-land hippie. The real kind, one who raised her kids in a tepee on a remote mountaintop near tiny Eagleville and now lives off the grid in a hobbit-style house on that same mountaintop. At 57, she loathes conservative politics.

However, both McGarva and Hodge maintain that state legislators shouldn't even think of cutting health and education funding to rural counties like Modoc, where 9,184 residents knock around a territory the size of Connecticut.

Instead, they say, swing the budget ax on bloated-big-government-style frills - for instance, state-paid cars for legislators and misguided environmental regulations, though they don't always agree on which ones are misguided.

'We'll just get by'

The fact that health and education spending make up about 70 percent of California's general fund, leaving little else to cut, only emphasizes the importance of that funding, they say.

And if the Capitol does indeed slash Modoc County's money for road maintenance, health services and welfare job training - which will happen, if Sacramento's Republicans get their way - McGarva and Hodge have the same plan.

"Well, we'll just get by the way we did in the Great Depression - on our own," McGarva said, swatting mosquitoes on his porch after another hard day of herding dogies on his 1,000-head ranch. "We'll grow a vegetable garden, we'll use milk cows." If the roads are closed, he said, they always have horses.

"We have pretty much all we need here on the mountain, and if we had to we could grow more of our own food," said Hodge, standing in her front yard, which is 6,100 feet above sea level and a jarring, 4-mile rumble up a dirt road. If the roads are closed, she said, she can always pack into town using her herd of llamas.

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