Time For The Fright Lists
By Peter Schrag
So now all of Sacramento is going to have budget crisis road shows – Jerry Brown, the Democrats, even the Republicans. And they’re all going their separate ways, literally and figuratively.
But at bottom there’s still the same old question: How much pain and inconvenience will taxpayers have to suffer before they understand that there’s no such thing as a free lunch? How many potholes and unsafe bridges; how many cancelled university classes; how high the tuition; how short the school calendar; how slow the response from the fire department, how long the wait at the DMV? Or do we simply not care?
The governor, said GOP Assembly leader Connie Conway, is trying to scare people by trying to tell them that the budget deficit either requires even more severe cuts than the state has already made or the tax extensions the governor wants.
That’s a false choice, quoth she, "It's disingenuous to scare people." You can fix it all with fiddles and efficiency. And pigs can fly.
The governor and his fellow Democrats say they’re not trying to scare people, just going to tell the facts, though he’s also said -- as he did at a meeting of the Service Employees International Union the other day -- that the worst case scenario [meaning no tax extensions] would be really ugly. He also says he’s going to focus on Republican districts and is urging his backers to “hug” a Republican. That’s not quite like saying kiss a frog, hoping he’ll turn back into a prince, but close enough.
Darrell Steinberg, the president pro-tem of the Senate, meanwhile, is saying he won’t support closing all of the remaining $15 billion budget gap with just cuts alone. That almost sounds like he may be preparing to sidle up to yet another round of gimmicks, denials and deferrals.
In truth, they should be scaring people. A lot of people on what’s now called the left (and once would have been centrists) say the mistake was made back in 1978, the last time Brown was governor, when the state bailed out the locals after Proposition 13 cut property taxes by some 57 percent.
Maybe if the voters had felt the effects of the tax cuts they voted themselves then, they might have had a different perspective. Instead, the governor and legislature launched a thirty-year era that taught voters (1) that they could cut taxes with impunity, as Howard Jarvis, the curmudgeon who co-authored Proposition 13 promised and (2) that the local governments had a moral right in perpetuity to the state’s largesse.
And so instead of hugging Republicans, the governor and the Democrats now seeking those modest tax extensions – and, were they real realists, a lot more – should be reminding all Californians of these other things. Among them:
- That like the rest of the country, the wealth and income gaps between the richest and poorest Californians have grown dramatically in the past thirty years, and that public policy, rather than restraining that growth has helped drive it. Contrary to the conventional wisdom and right wing rhetoric, Californians in the lowest income brackets pay a larger share of their income in taxes than the most affluent. In the vernacular, we are screwing ourselves to protect the rich.
- That California differs from all but a handful of other states in the fact that Proposition 13 requires a two-thirds majority in each house of the legislature to raise taxes (and it seems even to submit tax extensions to the voters) but only a simple majority to lower them. Inevitably that creates a ratchet effect which tends over time to lower taxes. And as we must all know by now, that gives a legislative minority a veto on policy, produces uncertainty and gridlock, and invites irresponsible behavior by both the majority and the minority.
- That California is unique among the states in the degree to which the state generates revenues that are then handed to the locals to spend. As political scientists Bruce Cain of the University of California and Roger Noll of Stanford recently put it in a recent article in the on-line California Journal of Politics and Policy:
The state spends less than the average for other states, but local governments spend much more. High local expenditures are financed by revenue transfers from the state that account for about 40 percent of the state’s budget. The cause of California’s unusual fiscal relationship is decades of initiatives that more severely constrain local revenues than state revenues.
The state has responded by creating a system of state-local transfers that allow local governments to face a form of soft budget constraint, leading to excess local spending and lack of clear accountability for the state’s recurring fiscal crisis.
That “unusual fiscal relationship”, too, is an invitation to governmental irresponsibility and something that Brown, political reformers and “realists” of all stripes should be talking about. The governor wants to realign state and local governments, and eliminate local redevelopment agencies, but seems to have forgotten that crucial fact.
By now the list of possible – or even necessary – cuts to get the budget in balance without the taxes is hardly news, though one reporter still described it as “surreal”: close one or more UC campuses; fire thousands of teachers and shut down the schools a few weeks early; cut cops, close prisons.
Republicans call it a fright list. Yet even Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor last week made a proposal, first advanced by Pat Callan, the former director of the National Center for Policy and Higher Education, years ago that might make sense even in good times: Convert some UC campuses into liberal arts colleges and stop trying to maintain full service Berkeley-type research universities in ten different places. That should get a little attention down Merced and Riverside.
What’s certain is that these are not surreal ideas, and they’re not fright lists. If California means to get off its treadmill of fudges and deferrals without taxes, there’s no way other than the bloody road. The faster those road trips can bring that home, the better.
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.