Proposed budget shows little faith in Californians
February 11, 2008
Not even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger calls his draconian budget proposal for the next fiscal year fantastic. In the weeks since Schwarzenegger submitted it, the plan has been attacked by educators, environmentalists, law-and-order activists and advocates for the poor, an almost unprecedented coalition that raises serious doubt whether any or all of the cuts proposed will stand. And the governor himself hints he may not mean everything he said in submitting the plan.This putative budget is based almost completely on one assumption: that the majority of Californians will not stand for any tax increase of any kind, but prefer to accept fee increases and great reductions in public services. That may simply not be correct.In fact, this is as venal and misleading a budget plan as California has ever seen. It suggests college tuition increases for the middle class even as the governor asserts his determination to protect that same economic group. It doesnt merely suggest fee increases for state parks, but seeks to close almost one of every five of them public lands paid for by the taxpayers that would suddenly become inaccessible to all but scofflaws.The plan violates Schwarzeneggers own pledge of last summer never to release any criminals from prison early. It seeks to roll back the school funding guarantees enacted by voters via Proposition 98. It tries to add a new fire protection fee to the insurance bill of every California property owner, not just those in fire-prone areas. It sees the same governor who says he wants universal health care coverage trying to cut back medical and prescription benefits for the poorest Californians the very people universal health care aims to help.It does little or nothing to endanger the lives or interests of anyone in the governors economic class, people who live in gated communities with large private properties, private guards and copious health insurance benefits.Thats the very definition of venal. Not to mention that its essentially a lie to use the word fees for price increases on things like college attendance and fire insurance, since those enrolled for higher education and buying coverage on their homes have little or no choice in those matters. The usual definition of a tax is an added cost that the payer has no option but to pay.But the main thing wrong with this budget and the widespread negative response it draws is an underlying lack of faith in the people of California.Dozens of successful school bond elections through the past 10 years illustrate that voters here are willing to dig into their wallets if they think theres reason. The passage rate of such local bonds tops 50 percent over that period, with payments for those bonds added to millions of property tax bills.Then theres the Schwarzenegger assertion that Californians are currently overtaxed, expressed in his frequently remark that The people are sending plenty of money to Sacramento. The problem is not taxing, it is spending.Well, most of that spending is on things the majority of voters like. State parks. Public schools, even if they have some flaws. Prisons. Public universities. Fire and police protection. Highways. Even Medi-Cal, paid mostly from federal funds.No one has thrown out a single state legislator for voting to expand or improve those kinds of public services. Isnt it just possible that the same voters who approve school bonds and keep reelecting lawmakers who back public services might vote to tax themselves just a little bit more to keep those services going?This is a possibility not even mentioned by either Schwarzenegger or the Democratic legislative leaders who so often act as his toadies. Says Schwarzenegger, explaining the cuts he plans, Its all the money we have.But does that have to be true?For despite a lot of talk to the contrary, Californians are not particularly over-taxed. The Washington, D.C.-based Tax Foundation ranks this state 12th in overall tax burden, with Proposition 13 keeping property taxes far below national averages, while sales and income taxes are above average.Back in 1977, Californias total tax burden, state and federal, ranked fifth in the nation, at 12 percent of the average household income. Now the bite is an average of 11.5 percent. By itself, returning to the 1977 tax level could produce almost $8 billion, enough to avoid most cuts now proposed.This could be done via a combination of small increases in sales and income taxes, by taxing some services and/or adding a small surtax to property levies.But this is not seriously considered by leaders in Sacramento, due to both a lack of courage and faith in their constituents.Maybe its time the politicians let the voters decide. Ask them if they want all the budget cuts or are willing to pay a few bucks more per year per household. Put the question on the June primary election ballot. The answer might be surprising.Thomas Elias writes on California issues. His email address is email@example.com.