Service Cuts or Tax Increases: California’s False Choice

As the clock ticks down on the window of opportunity to place a massive tax increase on the June ballot to support Jerry Brown’s budget plan taxpayers are unhappy and it’s not just about the taxes.

Anyone not living under a rock knew that Brown would press for new taxes — he telegraphed that one long before his election. But what is most disappointing is his failure to present a budget blueprint that is different from what we’ve seen in recent years. After announcing his budget would be gimmick free and put the state back on the road to fiscal solvency his plan can best be described as “same old same old.”

Brown like his recent predecessors has framed the budget options as limited to a painful choice between varying degrees of tax increases and cuts. Perhaps he does not want to risk sounding like Arnold “Blow up the Boxes” Schwarzenegger who promised to reform state government while campaigning for office. While we all know that Schwarzenegger rapidly morphed into one of the staunchest defenders of the status quo is it too much to ask the free-spirited Brown to think outside the box?

Instead the governor is now doing his best to convince us that after decades of government overspending and the creation of an incredibly bloated state bureaucracy we now have no choice but to a) raise taxes or b) drastically cut state funded services such as higher education public safety and health and welfare spending. His tax and spend cheerleading section which includes most of the political establishment government employee unions left leaning “public policy” organizations and editorial writers for many of the state’s most prominent newspapers are echoing these sentiments and embellishing them with dire warnings that failure to raise taxes will result in untold misery and deprivation.

This is an insult to the intelligence of Californians who are being presented with a false choice. The tax-and-spend marching band does not want taxpayers recognizing another option of making sure the money government already receives is being spent more efficiently — Sen. Mark Leno insists it is all “simple addition or subtraction.” Sacramento politicians would prefer to put the blame on already overburdened taxpayers for not providing enough money to the state; if they won’t come up with more money they are being “unreasonable” and “selfish.” Taxpayers they stress should “share in the sacrifice” and they say this with a straight face.

Taxpayers have been sacrificing for years. While already imposing some of the highest taxes in the nation the Legislature approved massive new taxes just two years ago. Lawmakers justified the added burden saying the revenue would be used to provide breathing room while the state puts its house in order. Two years later the economy and resulting state revenues have continued to decline and the house remains in chaos. The new governor’s response: Even more taxes.

But there are clear alternatives. Senate Republicans are proposing a complete overhaul of state government operations. Every agency all departments must be evaluated and forced to justify how much money it receives. State programs must be scrutinized for waste and fraud; duplicative programs must be eliminated or merged. California must set pay scales and benefits for state workers based on what’s needed to hire and retain competent employees instead of the sweetheart deals between government union leaders and their allies in the governor’s office and the Legislature.

But the Republican proposal will not go far enough if it does not also look at the least expensive ways to deliver services which include privatization and public-private partnerships that do not require state employees — the most highly paid in the nation — to do the work.

To the Sacramento establishment reforms that require the government to economize are like sunlight to a vampire but the reforms must come. The governor and the Legislature’s top priority must be to stretch existing revenue. Government exists to serve the public not to provide a happy-go-lucky lifestyle for the political elite and their supporters. It’s time to drag them out into the sun.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.