California Budget: Rejecting False Choices

On May 19th California voters made it clear that they are taxed enough and want their elected leadership to prioritize spending using the large amount of tax revenue we already send to Sacramento. That revenue of course includes the additional $12 billion in higher taxes imposed in February that the voters never approved.

But those supporting yet even higher taxes have resorted to the tactic of presenting false choices. They ask for example "which do you want to cut aid to the frail elderly or assistance to vulnerable children?"

A better question than "where will we cut?" is "where will we spend?" The fact is California is still slated to bring in approximately $84 billion in fiscal year ’08-09 more revenue than any other state — by far. And this is a level of revenue equal to what the general fund produced just a few short years ago.

In presenting false choices the spending lobby usually poses the choice as if it were limited to broad program areas such as education or welfare. Actually there should be substantial cuts in both: Cuts in welfare fraud (estimated to be in the billions — yes billions with a "b") and cuts in education bureaucracy. Let’s curtail categorical funding or save tens of millions by granting local school districts the authority to contract out maintenance and other services to allow school districts to put more money in the classroom.

Why have those who want higher taxes avoided the discussion of selling state assets? Why not sell state-owned property like the state’s share of the Los Angeles Coliseum? Is that more important then eliminating health care for needy kids? How about the Integrated Waste Management Board which has devolved into a soft cushy landing place for termed out politicians? As we run short of money why is the Legislature taking up the issue of establishing the California Blueberry Commission?

And why do we have two massive but separate tax agencies the State Franchise Tax Board and the State Board of Equalization? Are there no economies of scale in combining the agencies that could save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars? (The Governor to his credit has proposed the combination of those two agencies).

Changing the Sacramento mindset is proving to be very difficult. If you ask any government insider they will recite a list of reasons why needed reforms won’t work. But bureaucratic inertia is no reason to continue to overcharge Californians for necessary services and perpetuate programs that are unnecessary.

And what about the state workforce that the U.S. Census Bureau says is the highest paid in the nation? If public employee union leaders don’t want to see their membership decline through layoffs they should be willing to accept contracts that reflect levels of compensation and benefits more in line with private sector employees who now must work even harder and retire later in order to pay for public worker salaries and benefits.

The question must also be asked why do most government functions have to be performed by government employees? Why do we spend nearly $20000 a year more than the national average to incarcerate a prisoner? Isn’t this an area where legitimate savings can be realized by contracting some of our prison needs to the private sector?

Nobody wants to see basic social services for the state’s neediest residents disappear. The question becomes do the politicians in Sacramento have the will and desire to streamline state government in order to better hold it accountable for the tens of billions of dollars of taxpayer money that it spends every year?

In the midst of this budget crisis comes tremendous opportunity. Now is the time when we can prove once and for all that California really can live within its means. If not now then when?

Jon Coupal is President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest taxpayer organization — which is dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and promoting taxpayers’ rights.