Use line-item veto, re-do Prop. 13, return power to locals to fix state government…

July 2, 2009

With the major downturn in the nation’s economy (recession, depression) state and local governments are in deep trouble due to falling tax revenue.

California is perhaps in the worst shape of all, failing to pass its budget by the June 30 deadline because it could not find the revenue to balance it and is now facing a $26.3 billion deficit. Now the state plans to start issuing its creditors and even some social program recipients, as I understand it, IOUs.

But the bad economy is more what pushed California over the edge than the main problem.

And I don’t know exactly what the problem is in other states, but perhaps they’re similar.

Why is California government so screwed up? Well here is some pretty good shorthand (or longhand) for how the state has wound up in the poor house and has become dysfunctional:

Back in 1978 a the majority of voters got sick and tired of various mostly liberal-inspired state mandates concerning the micro managing of local government that cost their local governments money in order to comply with and therefore made their property taxes skyrocket each year. Well actually, they were against the taxes, not sure about the first part.

So how do you stop the programs? Starve the beast. Take away the source of revenue. So the property tax limiting Proposition 13 was passed, and that started the ball rolling, with similar measures past in other states.

But the mandates did not stop. California state government still demanded that local governments comply. Basically it has do do with such things and how many jailers you must hire or what kind of service you must provide through your county health department, and there is much more.

Well now that the counties (and therefore all local government) had taken a major hit on their property taxes through Prop. 13, they pleaded inability to provide services. In turn, the state over the years came through to some extent with funding (not total funding, but a lot). Local government is supposed to be in charge of things local and directly answerable to its local constituency. Problem was, now that the local governments could no longer simply hike property taxes to fund their operations they had to depend upon state money and they had to comply with state mandates. Local governments began charging all kinds of fees for service, which were often challenged as illegal new taxes, a 2/3 vote provision having been passed to further limit taxes (I think that was part of Prop. 13). But the state does not just hand out money with no strings attached. It requires that money be spent according to its policy.

Schools are part of local government (in an indirect way), so they suffered from Prop. 13 as well. But over the years the state stepped in with more school funding and even guarantees in law that x amount of money must be spent on schools – I believe the state has had to suspend that at times.

Because money could no longer be raised at the level of government where it was needed, the state government became all powerful. At the same time various interest groups pushed through legislation that mandates a certain percentage of the state budget must be spent in specific categories. That of course is nonsense. If that was a workable scheme there would be no need for legislative bodies, from city councils to the state legislature itself. You could simply draw up a constitution and a thick code book that specified where each dollar is to be spent – no need for flexibility to meet changing circumstances, desires by the public, and realities of an ever-changing economy.

So what we have ended up with here in California is emasculated local governments, with the problem compounded by the fact we have a dysfunctional legislature where Republicans and Democrats flat out refuse to work together. California also has a strange habit of electing Republican governors with Democratic legislative majorities. Where I live in the hinterlands, Republicans rule, although Democrats once held some sway decades ago when there was more organized labor and fewer urban area transplants who have a habit of turning from fairly liberal to strongly conservative once they get theirs and decide the best way to keep it is make sure no one gets any part of what they have.

And when I write such a thing, readers probably think I am suggesting that someone should want to give up what they worked for through higher and higher taxes. Not so. I am just making an observation. I have talked to enough people and heard enough comments and read about this enough through the years to know this is a phenomenon. My most recent contact on this issue was with a retired fireman from the Bay Area. He said that during his working career he voted the union ticket, which was Democratic. The Democrats supported organized labor. He made big money, he brags. He bought property up here in the north land and enjoys the rural life and fishing Shasta Lake (and he fought cancer and recovered, thanks to liberal union insurance paid for by the public through tax dollars, and was automatically as a firefighter assumed to have suffered from job-caused illness, thanks to liberal interpretation of workers comp). He is also a solid tax-hating conservative now. Makes off-color Obama jokes. I think he is typical of the breed. Being liberal (supporting organized labor) was good when it helped him personally, after that, no so much, in fact, not at all. But whether I agree with his stance or not I understand it. Politics is politics and it is often not a bit altruistic. I once told someone who did not seem to understand why anyone would vote for a Democrat: sometimes you try to just figure out who would best represent your own personal interest, even if you think someone else might have good arguments, and vote accordingly – well I said something like that. He just nodded his head.

Okay, so I got off the point. But anyway I think a first step for California is to elect a new governor who is not afraid to use the line-item veto to balance the budget.

Then Prop.13 has to be re-examined. One major flaw in it is that there is a commercial property loophole that allows owners to circumvent re-appraisals that usually would trigger tax hikes (not sure in this economy), while there is none for residential property.

Actually Prop. 13 is terribly unfair, resulting in next door neighbors with homes of equal value paying far different tax bills. Property taxes have gone up each time a property is sold and re-appraised, whereby original owners pay tax bills that have been severely limited to a one percent increase each year (and Prop. 13 is complicated, so I may not have that exactly right, but suffice to say an old-timer pays a low low bill and a newcomer an extremely higher bill). But unfair or not, Prop. 13 seemed necessary back in 1978 because many folks on fixed incomes were being taxed out of their homes, partly because of those state mandates.

Of course the problem is that voters always want more than they are willing to pay for. And that’s another major problem. The state is indebted for massive amounts of money because of liberal spending combined with a reluctance or inability to raise tax revenue. And maybe I shouldn’t have used the word liberal. Both so-called liberals and conservatives pass spending bills without concurrent funding or they base financing projections on the ability to borrow.

It would help if more power, and that would mean taxing ability, were returned to local governments. Then local voters would have both the right and ability to decide at what level services would be provided and the direct responsibility for paying the bill that goes with it.

During most of the time I covered local government for newspapers it was a sad sight to watch elected officials throw up their hands and say: “we have no authority to cut services or raise taxes”.

And that is tragic, because local government is the only place where a citizen can appear and be heard and expect that someone might even listen. Once things go beyond that, it’s mostly in the hands of lobbyists.


Things have to go to heck before they can get better in California…

June 12, 2009
Maybe the budget crisis that threatens to shut down the state of California is what is needed to reorganize the priorities of lawmakers when it comes to spending.
 
I don’t recall when the movement began by conservative Republicans on a national scale, but the idea was the best way to defeat dreaded social programs, things that help individuals rather than business, was to starve the beast. They might not always be able to get the votes to defeat or abolish programs, and sometims that would be politically unpopular anyhow. But by consistently voting against their funding they could over time starve them out of existence.
 
Liberals for their part always felt there was enough money for everything and more often than not made it easier for conservatives to vote for their programs by borrowing money rather than directly taxing the populace (and why careless borrowing has been popular with conservatives, I don’t know). Of course over time the debt on the interest adds up and then coupled with a disastrous economic downturn that rivals the Great Depression (and in some ways may be far worse), well that leaves California without the revenue stream and in a poor position to raise taxes, even though that seems the only alternative. Yes, services can be cut, and they are being cut drastically, but from what I read that will not be enough.
 
But it would seem that in order to even hope to get away with raising taxes, lawmakers would have to prove that they have done everything to cut back on spending to the point where the state is only supplying the most essential of services. In essence the state needs to nearly eliminate everything and start all over again.
 
Going forward, anything initiated needs to have a revenue source identified along with it. A program or service needs to depend upon that revenue source and if that source dries up, so be it — no issuing of bonds or borrowing from rainy day funds or the general fund.
 
Lawmakers would have to follow the just-given advice of State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, a Democrat, and vote like they knew they were going to lose in the next election anyway. That would free them up to do what is necessary, rather than what might get them votes. And actually it is suggested that this time around they could do just that because most of them sit in safely gerrymandered districts where their re-election is seldom in doubt (I believe that situation is due to change in the future due to a new law).
 
One of California’s major problems is that the legislature along with the electorate, via initiatives and referendums, got into the bad habit of earmarking what percentages of the budget must be spent for what — there is little flexibility — as if nothing ever changes and the constituency is static. Nonsense.
It may well take a disaster to set things right.
 
P.s.
This budget death dance has been performed near annually for decades. But this time it seems serious.
 

 

 


California voters toss ball back to government; local might be better…

May 20, 2009

California voters have spoken, either by voting or not voting, and in the process have thrown the ball back into the court of the legislature and governor.

They voted against nearly a half dozen mostly convoluted special election measures filled with hocus pocus to create money where there is none or to shift the tax burden back and forth.

Something tells me the sky is not falling.

Probably California needs a constitutional overhaul so that it can come up with a system in which the legislature cannot pass bills that require spending without a corresponding revenue source.

And maybe California needs to be broken up into two or more states. There has been a long-running argument that it should be divided into two states, north and south, but with changing demographics I think that no longer is feasible if it ever was.

The wants and needs of its citizens vary widely, but not necessarily on a geographic north-south basis. I think it’s more of an urban, suburban, rural, retirement division that is spread all over the state.

But if there were to be a split, the entities far away from the urban centers would suffer. While they tend to be more conservative, they would find that their revenue sources would be gone. Even conservatives demand government services, even if they don’t like to admit it.

I really think California would benefit by going back to a part-time legislature. We need legislators who are not simply trying to please as many people as they can or raise as much money as they can from special interest groups in order to get re-elected. We would be better off with people who serve with a sense of public duty and have a more altruistic approach. These kind of people would not find it so hard to make rational decisions and to have the fortitude to tell constituents that although they might agree with something they want that there is no money at this time for it.

The idea that a full–time, well paid legislature is less susceptible to corruption is laughable to anyone who has even observed California politics on a casual basis. The more money they make, the more they want. Money buys access. I was taught that in a political science class at Chico State University, not that I did not already know that. We all know it.

One problem in having part-time legislators is that some of the power of the elected representatives falls to professional and unelected staff. But we have to depend upon our elected representatives to keep an eye on abuse by staff.

In addition, local governments need to be freed of state requirements that do not come along with state funding (and this probably would require revisions in the state constitution). This would help in two ways. First of all the state would be relieved of sending millions of dollars to local governments. And second of all, local governments, with the input of local citizens, would be given back the ability to prioritize their spending. The notion that public services have to be equal everywhere is nonsense. Maybe if folks do not think that the environment is good where they live and they see that their neighbors want to keep it that way, they will move to somewhere else where they feel more comfortable. It should be up to the voters to decide how to spend their local taxes.

Now there are problem areas in this notion I just put forth. Public education is a problem, perhaps, because school children should not be punished or disadvantaged because local voters, many of whom may no longer have children in school, are not inclined to fund schools up to acceptable standards.

Also, just because one lives in a rural and/or conservative area, does not mean one should not have, say, police protection.

But those two problem areas are always a problem even with tons of state and federal aid. In the end it is up to the voters. And the closer to the people the decision making is, the better.

It’s been year’s since I had to attend meetings of county boards of supervisors or city council or school boards and such as a reporter. But when I took my first political science class in junior college all the students were required to attend one such public meeting. Nearly all came back with the same amazement. Everyone watched what they felt was true democracy in action. Regular people were allowed to voice their opinions at public meetings and elected officials acted on their input. Now this was at the time in a relatively rural area. But the idea is that government on the local level is more readily responsive to public input.

Maybe if we returned more power to local governments we would all be better off.


Lawmakers can’t do the job so they pass the decision making to the voters…

May 6, 2009

Note: the following post is about California, but could apply to other states.

—————–

It’s bad enough that in each regular election voters in California are asked to decide on a whole host of ballot initiatives and referendums (initiatives come from petitions from the voters – actually by special interests since the cost of putting them on the ballot would be prohibitive to individual voters – and referendums are when the legislature passes the buck), but in between we have these costly special elections. Once again we are asked to do what we pay the legislators and the governor to do.

And the measures are usually not straight forward, but instead so convoluted that even the lawmakers and the governor probably don’t fully understand them (sometimes a no vote means yes and a yes vote means no, yes really). And they almost all have hidden agendas.

There are a half dozen measures on my California May 19th ballot and all have to do with fiscal issues. Apparently the job was too tough for our elected officials so they’ve passed the buck (so to speak) to us (actually they take the buck from us).

My folks told me when in doubt vote no. And I always have. I sometimes vote yes when the issue is money for veterans and stuff like that, but otherwise I just vote no. I figure if I cast a vote for legislators and governor I have done my job.

The initiative process in California was put into effect as a reform measure in the early part of the 20th Century by a Republican governor (would you believe it?) when the Southern Pacific Railroad ran the state (that governor, Hiram Johnson, was the son of the railroad’s top lobbyist – ironic). The idea was that it would be a counter for the citizenry to the lobbying power of the big railroad that had a stranglehold on commerce and other issues in the state. Over the years the state’s population increased so dramatically that in order to get the required signatures on the ballot for an initiative only special interests groups trying to push legislation to line their pockets could pay for the cost of getting something on the ballot. And doesn’t it seem silly that we have a legislature but we have to make laws and amend the constitution by elections? We might as well just have an electronic town meeting statewide (such an idea I think was proposed by Ross Perot). Who needs government?

Actually I don’t think that would be a good idea. I do think eliminating initiatives and referendums would be a good idea.

And in fiscal matters California has the same problem as the federal government. It consistently votes to spend more money than it takes in. The governor does, though, have the power of the line item veto. He could balance any budget in any given year. I really don’t know what the problem is.

I am not a Republican. But probably only because that party seems to fall all over itself to give tax breaks and special favors to big business (note: big business) and leave the common person out in the cold. Republicans also kowtow to the fundamentalist religious groups who want to strictly codify social behavior into law.

I wandered here. The whole point is that I have my California May special election ballot and as of now I plan to vote no on everything except the measure that prohibits lawmakers and constitutional officers from raising their pay when the budget is in deficit (which is interesting since supposedly deficit spending is by law not allowed in California). Maybe even that is silly. Maybe lawmakers should be able to raise their pay by their own vote anytime they have the guts to do so. We can always vote them out the next time. (And, by the way, the pay raise measure is somewhat useless in that we have already created some type of pay raise commission previously and the current bill is somewhat ambiguous — so what else is new?) 

Lawmakers: if you can’t handle your job or you cannot vote your convictions you should find other work.

P.s.

I acutually think the legislature should be a part-time job with relatively low salary that people who have time for such things perform out of a sense of public service rather than a career or means to line their pockets or set themsevles up for a future lobbying position. It had been thought that paying full-time salaries would cut down on the bribery and so on. It didn’t. Dishonest people are dishonest people. Some have morals and some not.


Elected officials need authority to take blame…

February 18, 2009

(Copyright 2009)

Among the major causes or components of the built-in senseless gridlock in California government is Proposition 13.

(Some of all of this may apply to other states too.) 

It’s the 1978 tax measure that among other things required a 2/3 vote of the legislature to raise taxes.

Kind of the same mentality that calls for term limits, mandatory sentencing, and constitutional requirements that lock the state government into funding specific categories or programs.

California’s budgeting laws lock in a major portion of the state’s spending for designated services, leaving the legislature and the governor with less than half of the total budget to argue over as “discretionary spending”.

And I should caution serious California readers to read Dan Walters (works for the Sacramento Bee, is on the web) to get a better understanding of this. I’ve followed California politics most of my life, but mostly on a surface basis, as a reader of current events. I did take a California government class in college, but I don’t begin to understand all of its complexities. On the other hand, it should not be terribly difficult. As it presently stands, you have Democrats who hold the majority and these days seem to reign primarily in the populous LA area and the Bay Area, and then you have a lot of Republicans everywhere else. At present, Democrats support tax increases and Republicans oppose tax increases, but do support spending cuts, to the extent they can make them. And in there, you have to realize that modern conservatives use the strategy of “starving the beast” to oppose social programs. It’s easier to cut off funding than to take on a particular social program head-on.

The problem is, as Dan Walters often notes, California continually runs a “structural deficit”, which forces it even in good economic times (and these of course are not) to spend more than it takes in. That’s because our elected officials have direct authority only over a relatively small portion of the budget.

To some extent, I think, both Democrats and Republicans almost like aspects of the structural deficit. They can hide behind it to cover their own poor judgment, throwing up their hands and saying: “we have no choice; we’re locked in”.

(I once covered county government for a newspaper. The Road Department chief continually ran what seemed to be a bloated budget, but when the supervisors tried to force his department to be more efficient, he smiled and said he could not do that because state regulations required that state-funded road equipment and even employee hours could only be used for certain things; I think there is some analogy, if indirect, there to the problem of which I am addressing.)

The way things should work in our representative democracy with its three branches of government, legislative, administrative, judicial, is that the majority of  the elected  legislators, who in turn use the proxy of the voters, determine how things should run. The governor, an elected official, is supposed to be the administrator, who does have checks on the power of the legislature, because he can veto legislation, and just like the president of the United States, he can take his case directly to the people, as well. Unlike the president of the U.S., he also has a line-item budget veto.

Oh, and I should mention, California and many other states, unlike the federal government, is required by law to balance its budget.

I mentioned the three-strikes law that hobbles the judiciary to some effect, and term limits that limit the power of voters, but those items are not the main subject of this blog, so back to the budget problem:

At some point the far right and some anti-tax extremists (to some extent one of the same), felt it did not have enough influence, and at the same time, elected officials at both the county and state levels got carried away with spending and riled property owners and potential property owners. So Proposition 13 with its 2/3 vote tax increase provision (not to mention the utterly unfair and inequitable and burdensome multi-tier property tax structure (the definition of arcane) was passed as a kind of gigantic public tax protest.

I know, back in the 70s, my wife and I had recently started to buy a home, and we voted for it. As I mentioned in a blog a few months ago, I was covering county government at the time and watched a conservative board of supervisors simply ask its treasurer what the expenses were and then they set the tax rate accordingly (a little more discussion on how we might keep those expenses in check, maybe). That seemed a rather open-ended approach. At the time, some 30 years ago, the county was already locked into funding unfunded state mandates, and it has not changed. The structural deficit situation rears its ugly head. It would seem those who are charged with spending the money must have authority over how to raise it and spend it).

The problem is that it is not practical to codify into law what decisions legislators must make on passing legislation on the budget or otherwise, or judges must make when sentencing criminals (three strikes: two felonies, then the bad guy turns good, but at some point gets hungry and steals a slice of pizza – goes back to state prison, rather than probation or a county jail term as a first offender might suffer — adds to state prison overcrowding and expenses). Both legislators and judges make wrong decisions, but there is a reason we have people make decisions. Decisions on policy or human lives must be made with flexibility to fit the circumstances.

Right now the free-spending Democrats outnumber the Republicans in the California legislature. The only way the Republicans (who actually do a fairly good job in spending themselves) feel that they can keep their rivals in check is to vote no and make use of the 2/3 requirement, making the state run out of money, lay off workers, quit paying its bills (to business and private citizens), cut back in education and law enforcement, make the state’s sorry credit rating even worse and so on.

Without the inflexibility of the 2/3 requirement the stalemate could be broken. Yes it might wind up being a tyranny of the majority as far as the Republicans are concerned, but they can get more office holders elected and it is better than letting the tyranny of the minority dismantle our state government and cause such human misery in the process.

Three strikes and terms limits (the havoc they cause a subject in itself) are silly and even dangerous as well, but some other time on those.

Add 1:  While a Bakersfield Republican senator notes in a story in the Bakersfield Californian that supposedly anti-tax hero former Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1967 proposed the largest tax increase in the state’s history, the state being in fiscal dire straits then too, and that he, the Bakersfield senator, might consider compromise, that can be dangerous. The Republicans this week kicked out their own minority leader for supporting cooperation.

P.s.

A solution: Re-do the state constitution. Give the power back to our elected officials and let the check on them be the voters. Otherwise we might as well have a computer geek write a government program and we could dismantle the human government and feed everything into a computer. Garbage in, garbage out.