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Taxing Times

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

Jackie Goldberg, 58, a stalwart of progressive Los Angeles politics, went to Sacramento in 2001 ready to do things, firmly believing that an activist government should intervene to improve the lives of the poor and the powerless. But now, she and other lawmakers are faced with slashing services because of multibillion-dollar budget deficits over the next two years. Goldberg is prepared to cut and compromise, but only to a point. Which means that she will push for some tax increases, and battle the Republicans. HOWARD BLUME caught up with Goldberg by phone in her Sacramento office.

 

L.A. Weekly: What do you tell people who don’t believe the problem is serious?

JACKIE GOLDBERG: Well, for starters we’re going to take a 3 to 4 percent cut on education this year with more to follow. Do you think being 38th out of 50 is high enough for per capita spending on public education?

And in health care, for example, we’re looking at cutting adult dental-care services through Medi-Cal. You know that will end up costing us more in the long run. Whole-mouth reconstruction is a lot more expensive than filling a cavity.

And then, diabetics won’t get insulin needles paid for. For diabetics, that’s a life-or-death issue.

 

And what happens to people who receive welfare, given that federal deadlines are cutting them off from aid?

They’re just dead. There’s nothing for them. You’ll see more people homeless on the street. You’ll see crime go up. You’ll see certain types of illnesses increase. You’ll see infant mortality rise. You might see an increase in alcohol or drug addiction.

 

What could the state do for these people in better times?

Nothing requires us to cut them off completely. We could provide some kind of housing allowances. It would be difficult for these people in any case; now we’re just making it more difficult, and that includes making it hard for them to hold on to medical coverage. Now, we’re going to require that you prove you’re eligible every three months. What happens when you live on the street is that you don’t have any records, so you’re not going to prove anything. So they’re going to lose their Medi-Cal, even though they’re eligible.

 

Why does California have these periodic budget crises?

There are two structural problems. One is that it takes a two-thirds vote to raise revenues but only a 50 percent vote to lower them. And the other is that it takes a two-thirds vote to pass the budget.

Republicans are running around screaming and yelling about how they’d like to go back to the spending of the 1998 budget. I would like to go back to the revenue of the 1998 budget. We’ve cut about $9 billion on an annual basis. In five years, that’s $45 billion. We would be in no budget trouble at all right now if we had that $45 billion. So we have a structural problem.

 

What caused this particular economic catastrophe?

We forget very quickly, but after September 11, everybody was predicting that by the end of last year, and certainly by the beginning of this year, we’d begin to see a recovery in the economy, and we haven’t. They said unemployment might go to 5.5 percent nationally, and it’s over 6 percent now. It’s 6.7 percent in L.A. and 6.4 percent in California.

Nobody predicted that. Nobody predicted that the stock market would get hit first by Enron and all of those failures, and then by the accounting debacle, which has caused people to lose faith in the stock market. And a lot of our taxes in California are based on stock options and capital gains.

 

How have the policies of the federal government contributed to the problems of California?

Basically, it’s “Screw California — they don’t vote for us anyway.” That’s what we’re seeing. We’re not getting our share of federal dollars for transportation, just for example. And we don’t get nearly our share of health-care dollars, because we are caring for people who are here without documents.

 

So now what do we do? How would you cut education, presuming that you have to?

Let’s look at class-size reduction in the high-achieving schools. Maybe the high-achieving schools don’t need to be 20-to-1 in first, second and third grades. Maybe they can do it with 22 kids in a classroom.

We have $5 million in principal training. We could delay doing that. We’ve got several hundred million dollars in textbook purchases. We can wait two or three years to buy new English and literature books. Maybe we should just not have state testing for one year. Do you think the system would end as we know it, if we did not test kids to death in May for one year?

 

We already have a health-care system —

In utter crisis. We shouldn’t be taking any cuts in health care.

 

Is there an area where there could be deeper cuts?

We took only four-tenths of 1 percent out of prison and security. We need to cut there. You’ve got prisoners 75 years and older who are seriously ill. Let them all go home. They’re not going to hurt anybody anymore. You’ve got people with very small property crimes. Put them under house arrest. Send ’em home. Put a bracelet on them.

 

What tax increases would make most sense to do?

First and foremost, a reduction in the rebate for the vehicle-licensing fee, going back to where we were a few years ago. And right now, you can still deduct the mortgage interest you pay on your second home. That’s ridiculous. Most people can’t even afford a home. And I’m going to be looking at trying to raise taxes on the top 2 percent of income earners.

 

What’s the long-term solution?

This state will never create a fair and equitable tax system as long as it takes a two-thirds vote.

 

But perhaps the only way you can get at the two-thirds vote requirement is a ballot initiative.

That’s what we should be looking at. And that’s what I am looking at.

 

That would be a tough sell.

I don’t think so. I think people are tired of the roller coaster.


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