California: Reforming Ourselves Into Oblivion

Posted on 19 June 2011

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By Peter Schrag

As the Sacramento Democrats huff and puff about Gov. Jerry Brown’s veto of their gimmick-heavy budget and the punditocracy decides which of them is most at fault, the real story gets missed -- again.

The most obvious culprit is the ever-more insular Republican cult, which has spent the past three decades exploiting California’s minority veto. It enables one third of the state’s legislators to out-vote the other two thirds on any tax or other revenue increase.

Beyond that is an electorate that can’t make up its collective mind what it wants – or rather, stubbornly demands California services with Mississippi taxes. And beyond that there are thirty years of “reforms” and ballot box budgeting that have so convoluted the system it hardly functions at all.

The most recent of those fixes was Proposition 25 that the voters passed last November, which lowers the two-thirds vote required to pass the budget to a simple majority, but leaves intact the supermajority needed to raise taxes.

For a lot of the liberals who backed it as the desirable half-loaf that was better than nothing, last week’s budget fracas must have occasioned a bit of second thinking and brought another reminder of the law of unintended consequences. Beware of what you wish for.

Now it’s the majority Democrats who have to take the rap for deep cuts to schools and social services, rising university tuition and all the other public agony that all-cuts budgets impose and/or the kind of budget gimmickry that Brown’s veto temporarily (at least) saved them from last week.

Now the Republicans have the best of all possible worlds: They can have their way. They can ratchet down taxes, starve the universities and screw kids and the poor by doing absolutely nothing and take almost none of the blame.

Since the 1970s, we’ve reformed ourselves to the brink of oblivion. The most obvious of those reforms was the idiocy of Proposition 13 in 1978, which not only put local property taxes into a straitjacket but, more important, shifted a major part of what used to be local authority to the state. Thanks to Proposition 13, it’s the state that now controls the local property tax.

Because the state (then also governed by Jerry Brown) immediately began to bail out the locals, replacing a major share of the revenues they lost in property taxes with its own funds, it began the era of fiscal irresponsibility and confusion that’s gotten more convoluted by the year.

Who’s responsible when the streets don’t get paved or the school roof leaks, or there’s no money for band or libraries or school counselors, the city council or the school board for wasteful spending and mismanagement or the state for failing to provide the funding?

Who puts the strain on the state budget,  legislators creating warm and fuzzy new programs or voters with initiatives like California’s multi-billion-dollar three-strikes sentencing law or the $3 billion stem cell bond (total cost $6 billion with interest) or countless other bonds, all for nice programs, but none of them providing a dime of new revenues to pay for them?

There were some old fossils and a few notorious crooks in the legislature before 1990, when voters passed California’s very tight term-limits law. But now that freshmen have to chair committees charged with complex matters of water law, insurance regulation, school finance and countless other matters, how many of us still believe that Sacramento has become a better place because of it?

How can legislators really care about the long-term consequences of their actions when they’ll all be gone and forgotten before most of those consequences become apparent?

Delay, denial, deferral and sheer gimmickry, the things that Brown again complained about in his budget veto, are almost inevitable in a term-limited legislature. Why not sell state buildings for a quick billion or two when it’s the next guys who’ll have to figure out how to pay to rent them back? Why not mortgage the lottery or the income from the national tobacco suit settlement?

But beneath our dysfunctional political structure, lies the political culture from which it grew: the myth that we’re badly overtaxed; the virulent individualism that’s replaced the communitarian ethic that helped make California the great state it once was; the great gap between the electorate, which is still whiter, older, and more affluent than California’s increasingly brown minority-majority population as a whole.

In time, as our Asian and Latino population grows, as the white population declines and as both the ethnic and generation gaps shrink, we’ll slowly return to a somewhat more seamless politics.

In time the voters will again look more like the general population and make decisions on services not for “others” but for people like themselves and their families.

That’ll start to be apparent in the new electoral districts now being drawn, districts that, with the increase in Latino voters in places like the Inland Empire, will be less and less safe for Republicans. In another generation, the rapidly rising rates of inter-ethnic marriage will also begin to make our current ethnic categories ever more blurry or maybe render them politically meaningless altogether. That can’t come a day too soon.


Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale.

I know you're upset about the cuts on many of the programs that we've come to appreciate and utilize, but I think you're being completely ignorant by even suggesting that the Republican minority is to blame for all the faults of our state. How is that productive?

California is losing in the face of competition from other states. Our businesses are fleeing to right-to-work and other states offering deep incentives, faster than we can even conceive. I agree with some of your post where you suggest perhaps that some of the programs we don't need, or perhaps never needed. I think, like you suggest, we need to simply look at all our programs and say, do we NEED this, is this critical, and then cut anything and everything that we don't absolutely need. We have to be able to lower taxes, even the wealthy celebrities don't want to stay in California anymore...

We really need to start being smart with our money. We've been electing too many politicians that have been promising benefits and money to us. A politician will say: "vote for me, I'll get this for you..." he / she gets elected, and they certainly provide... but when they're gone, now we have a need, with no way to pay for it... so the next guy gets stuck with the bill.

My god...what a load of teabagger talking point crap...yet another right wing web troller...

Of course, in the world of non-knuckled draggers, this is yet another fantastic piece...thanks Peter!

There is absolutely nothing constructive in your comment kaldveer, nothing. In fact, it could be equally turned back on you, just substitute anti-left-wing language instead of the anti-right-wing language you elected to use. Obviously tolerance is not your strong suit, nor is constructive dialog.

Yeah, that's me... the hispanic, gay rights supporting, evolution believing tea-bagger. I'm of the impression that you're inability to see criticism is probably what got us into this mess.

I really don't understand the point of this essay. First, republicans run on a platform of not raising taxes. It is absolutely no surprize that they behave that way when elected. If you don't like that than vote them out of office.

Secondly, to say that Californians are not overtaxed one has to wonder what universe you are living in. The current marginal income tax rate is 9.55% and the last time I was in San Francisco the state tax rate was 10.5%. These are astronomical when compared to other states. And, yet, you say that Californians are not taxed enough?

Thirdly, with the current unemployment rate of 12.5%, California is obviously in financial trouble. People and companies are moving out. There is a reason for this.

I like Peter but he is dead wrong about the Dems being stuck with the blame for lack of sufficient revenue under the new Prop 25 system.

All the Dems have to do when they need more taxes is gather signatures & put it on the ballot and if it does not pass they can blame the public themselves who had a direct opportunity to create more revenue and voted it down. It's hard to blame the Dems (or anybody) when you yourself directly voted against the revenue. It also eliminates the need to negotiate at all with the GOP extremists because if Dems want taxes instead of giving in to completely unreasonable GOP demands they just go directly to the voters and let them decide and live with the consequences.

Thanks to Proposition 13, it’s the state that now controls the local property tax?
Wasn't Serrano v. Priest also a factor?
If local had meant city, not county, and citizens had been able to vote on school budgets, without the interference of the state via the outcome of Serrano v. Priest, would proposition 13 have even been proposed? In small political units citizens have a voice. In large cities and at the county level, their voice is lost.

Peter you say--

"In time, as our Asian and Latino population grows, as the white population declines and as both the ethnic and generation gaps shrink, we’ll slowly return to a somewhat more seamless politics.

In time the voters will again look more like the general population and make decisions on services not for “others” but for people like themselves and their families."

Yes, but who will pay for your anti-white society?

Can you say "racist"?

What a useless rant.

I grew up in Detroit. I remember when Coleman Young was mayor and he raised every tax that he could (income tax on residents, non-residents, property taxes, fees, fees, fees, etc.). The subtext was that the city was becoming less white and the whites would pay the taxes anyway. Once, he even said that, when asked by a black person about the taxes he laughed and said, "why do you care, you aren't going to pay the tax anyway."

Over time it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The white, middle class moved out. Detroit was left with a predominantly non-tax paying population (after all, non-taxpayers don't care if taxes go through the roof). The result was, eventually, an economic collapse. It was slow, gradual, until a tipping point was reached and, at that point, Detroit morphed into an urban disaster. One that fell so fast, so hard that I doubt if it is recoverable within the next two generations.

I see all of that in California. The tax rates have become so punitive that the entrepenurial class, the skilled class, are slowly moving out. Are we hitting the tipping point? I don't know, but at some point California will get there.

In time the voters will again look more like the general population and make decisions on services not for “others” but for people like themselves and their families

Possibly. More likely is that political control will pass from "voters" to a wealthy oligarchy living in gated communities with private security to protect them from the hordes. If the state doesn't go up in flames. Check back in ten years to see.

Being Hispanic is not a race. You state:

"In time, as our Asian and Latino population grows, as the white population declines and as both the ethnic and generation gaps shrink, we’ll slowly return to a somewhat more seamless politics."

Not sure if you're aware of what it means to be Latino(a) / Hispanic, but that's a heritage, not a race. Peopel from Mexico are part Spanish / part Native Indian (Aztek). Like Peruvians who are also part Spanish / part Native Indian (Inca).

You can be white and be Hispanic (most Argentines, people from Uruguay, Cuba, Columbia, etc), and you can be black and be Hispanic (most people from the Dominican Republic, etc).

It annoys me to no end that people like you seem to want to immediately put people into "containers" or "categories." That in and of itself is unbelievably bigotted. Do some reading on the history of the settlers of North, Central, and South America.

I mean, that's like calling European a "race."

I'm a Democrat, but happy that the Republic minority prevents more taxes. If state-supported progams would limit salaries of- especially their managment--employees, there would be plenty of money to run the programs. Have you looked at the UC system salaries? Many administrators receive high six-figure salaries.Several coaches get almost a billion dollar salary--the jocks say that it is paid for by gifts. There should be a cap on public salaries: $100,000 would be a good bench mark--increasing with inflation.One city in Alameda County city bragged that it found money in its budget to re-hire two police at a cost of almost $400,000!No wonder they had to chop $20 billion from their budget.

The California dysfunction is now nationwide. We are solidly split into groups of people who are unable to hold a civil conversation in what is supposedly a democracy. While we snipe at each other, a generation grows up with lack of commitment to public education and public services. The money piles up controlled by multi-national corporations aided by their best friend, the Supreme Court. Taxes are a joke. Most of the money is off-shore. We have been in this pattern for over 30 years with no change in sight beyond being statistically like Russia in terms of the power and money controlled by our oligarchs. Welcome to USINC.

A very painful joke. My wife and I have paid $10,000 in state income taxes last year. This does not include state sales tax. I am not laughing very hard.

The question is did you pay more than many CEO's and corporations?

Why do I care what a CEO paid? I am getting hammered on taxes, I don't care about their problems. And, every time the state needs money they push my taxes up. You think these "revenue extensions" don't hit me? think again.

You should care what corporations don't pay because you are paying for them. So much money into the pot and so much out of it.