AS VOTERS, WE HIRE professional helpers and send them to Sacramento to run the state. Then we sign petitions to crowd our ballots with initiatives, in effect telling our hirelings that we can do a better job than they can. The real surprise is how often the paid help — our legislators — agree that they can’t hack it and put propositions on the ballot themselves. It’s their way of saying, “Hey! This stuff is too hard! You guys figure it out!”
Both phenomena are at work in the case of this November’s Proposition 65, a voter initiative, and Proposition 1A, a legislative measure, both of which would curb 25 years of the governor and Legislature balancing their budgets by swiping money from cities and counties.
The substance of the measures can best be explained by way of illustration.
Let’s say you’re 12 and you get an allowance of $1 a week. No, $5 a week. Mom and Dad are generous, and besides, you hold up your end by mowing the lawn, cleaning up after the dog, and generally helping out around the house. Plus, you have a paper route and you mow the neighbors’ lawns, bringing in another 25 bucks a week. And you need that money to pay for your clarinet lessons, and with the money left over you’re saving up to buy an heirloom clarinet you saw in the pawnshop window.
Then Dad asks you to sit down for a little talk. “Kid,” he says, “I need you to stop mowing for a minute. Now I know you work hard for your allowance and for the rest of your money, and you have plans for it. But, you see, we just repaved the driveway, and darned if we don’t have any money to pay for it. So I’ll be needing to stop paying you your $5 a week. And while we’re on the subject, I need the $25 a week that you bring in from your odd jobs. See, I couldn’t pay your little sister her allowance anymore either, and when I told her that, she cried. So I need your money in order to keep paying her. And some for myself, because things have been slow at the office. Oh, I know it doesn’t seem fair, but as you grow up you’ll learn that this world is an unfair place. You’re not really that good a clarinet player anyway.”
That’s generally the way things have worked between Sacramento and the hundreds of cities and counties around the state, at least since we passed Proposition 13 in 1978. Property values were frozen, for tax purposes, and revenues started declining. So Sacramento — that’s Dad — took the schools’ share and gave it to local cities and counties, then tried to backfill the money they took from the schools. You may recall someone telling us the schools would be okay, because they would get millions in free money if we approved a state lottery (Remember? “Our schools win too!”).
Then about 10 years ago, the state stopped giving local governments the schools’ share of tax revenues and told them, essentially, “Tough luck.” Cities and counties, still charged with providing public safety and other basic services, relied more than ever on local sales taxes (so they encouraged high-volume big-box stores to come to town, while discouraging vitally needed developments like housing that don’t generate sales-tax revenues).
Then, in 1999, in a bid to be popular with us, Sacramento cut the car tax. Don’t worry, lawmakers told cities and counties. We’ll backfill whatever you lose from the car tax. As long as we don’t need it ourselves. And you know, we do. For now.
Perhaps you remember that when our last governor tried to bring the car tax back, we tossed him out and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who “solved” the budget problem by borrowing billions through bond sales and by “deferring” reimbursements to counties and cities for the lost (once again) car-tax revenues. And by giving the locals’ money — some of it, anyway — back to the schools.
The locals come off as the political bad guys, while our good friends in Sacramento hover and criticize. “Why are waits so long in your emergency rooms? Why are there so few cops on your streets?”
That brings us to Proposition 65, a stringent revenue-reallocation plan put together by mayors and county supervisors who were tired of being dumped on. If passed, Prop. 65 would put the locals in charge of their own money and keep it beyond the reach of state senators and Assembly members who like snatching it to get themselves out of their own mess. The League of California Cities, led by people like Mayor Jim Hahn, waved the measure in front of Schwarzenegger as a warning.
That brought Arnold to the table, and he and the league brokered Proposition 1A to keep the state out of the locals’ pockets — but not right away. The Legislature and the Terminator get two years of breathing room before the new barriers around city and county revenues go up. They leave themselves an out — if Sacramento declares a fiscal emergency, with a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, they can once again swipe money from local projects. Both sides were happy with the agreements, and the mayors and supervisors disowned Prop. 65. They want you to ignore it. And vote for 1A. Then everything will be fine.
Until, of course, the state realizes it has no money and has to cut services. Or, just as likely, has to sweep away environmental or other mandates on local governments, because it no longer will be able to reimburse for them. But at least cities and counties will be flush. Right?
THAT BRINGS US TO Los Angeles County Measure A, on a different part of your ballot, which asks you to raise sales taxes in Los Angeles County by a half-cent in order to pay for law enforcement. That would make sales taxes in the county 8.75 percent.
But wait, you ask. Aren’t my taxes already paying for law enforcement? Sure they are, but Sheriff Lee Baca wasn’t getting as much from the Board of Supervisors as he thought he needed in order to keep criminals in jail. The supervisors — most of them, anyway — said, “Okay by us. Go ahead. Tax yourselves. Show us the money.” So did the Los Angeles City Council, which was planning to put its own measure on the ballot if the supervisors wouldn’t do it.
Baca and Police Chief Bill Bratton are urging you to vote for Measure A, because law-enforcement needs are greater since 9/11. In other words, this tax is needed for Homeland Security. If that will make you vote for it.
This is a little different from the parcel tax that county voters approved in 2002 to save the county’s trauma centers. Unlike the trauma tax, the law-enforcement tax would be a sales tax — the most regressive type of tax, falling with greater comparative impact on low-wage earners than on the wealthy.
By the way, didn’t we already raise sales taxes for law enforcement? Yes. Proposition 172, half-cent tax statewide, 1993. You’re still paying it.
Now, a couple weeks ago, wouldn’t you know it, the supervisors who had been pleading poverty for months checked their sofa cushions and found an unexpected $309 million — more than half of what would be raised by the sales-tax increase.
Gosh, the board could have said. Is our face red! But no, the board just spent the money, and Baca, Bratton and Hahn said the onetime windfall could not be used for ongoing law-enforcement costs. So still vote for Measure A.
It rankles a bit, though, to see the suddenly discovered money used for employee raises. Okay, that wage increase for home health workers was overdue. And yes, hiring more people to make juvenile halls safer is probably a good idea. But retrofitting the Natural History Museum? Isn’t that what private fund-raising is for? And, it turns out, the biggest chunk of cash — $103 million — is going to the state. As part of a deal. A deal to get Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign off on Proposition 1A! You can’t help but feel like a sucker.
So should you vote for 1A? Should you vote for Measure A? Yes, and yes. It’s not that you aren’t a sucker. You are. We all are.
But the fiscal disaster is real. We got ourselves into this mess, or our parents did, in 1978. It will take a new look at Proposition 13 to get ourselves out.