How the West Was Lost

The bipartisan effort to destroy California

Back Article Dec 1, 2009 By Tony Quinn

Everyone seems to agree we are in a mess: collapsing state revenues, inadequate infrastructure, schools that don’t educate — you name it.

So who is guilty? Here’s a rundown of the usual suspects and one new one.

Proposition 13: This is the Great Satan, according to the left. As far as many Liberals are concerned, Prop. 13 killed the Golden State because it denies us sufficient funds to meet our needs. In the book “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future,” former Sacramento Bee political columnist Peter Schrag argues the 1978 passage of Prop. 13 marked the end of the positive post-war California and the beginning of a new era of “declining confidence and shrinking public services.”

Public spending: The Great Satan according to the right is excessive government spending driven by the rise of public employee unions. This is the result of another act of the 1970s, public employee collective bargaining. No longer does government exist to provide public services, they argue, but to satisfy the voracious demands of the public employee unions, especially the teachers unions, which have never seen a tax increase they didn’t like. And for the Republican Party, the only way to slow lavish spending is by stopping new taxes.

Both are right, and both are wrong. By capping property taxes, Prop. 13 forced spending on schools and other local services to the state level, where unions in control of the Legislature have run the show. But as the California Taxpayers’ Association points out, property taxes still generate lots of revenue, and the economy, until this decade, generated more than enough revenue to make up for what was lost under Prop. 13.

Another fashionable Great Satan is the rule that requires a two-thirds vote to pass the budget and increase taxes. Just do away with the two-thirds vote requirement, and the Legislature could get its job done on time and find the revenue to pay for needed services, the left argues.

The problem with this Great Satan: The two-thirds budget rule is more than 75 years old, and we passed plenty of budgets on time before this decade. The two-thirds tax rule comes out of Prop. 13, but attempts to modify it have been unsuccessful. The voters seem to like the two-thirds rules just fine.

The other side of this argument is that the Democratic Party is the source of our problems, deemed a bunch of spendthrifts who have driven the state into the ground by excessive taxes and regulations. The two-thirds rule, argue conservatives, is actually a boon to the state because it keeps the spendthrifts in line.

And, say those on the right, the real problem is years of loading a huge regulatory burden on business — a direct consequence of Liberal control of the Legislature — hindering job growth and keeping the economy in the doldrums.

So who is the villain that killed California? Leaving aside the ideological arguments, the real problem may well be the voters themselves. Maybe, like Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” it is all of us.

Voters refuse to demand accountability from politicians, and politicians go about their merry way with ideological blinders. Most people agree we should spend more money on crumbling roads, but can you find Republicans willing to support higher gasoline taxes? Most people agree burgeoning public employee pensions may well bankrupt the state, as Treasurer Bill Lockyer recently warned. But can you find an elected Democrat willing to take on the unions over this issue?

Instead, both sides enjoy blaming their favorite Great Satan. Liberals contend higher taxes are the only solution to our problems, but the voters of California are and have for many years been in no mood to raise state taxes (though they will occasionally raise local taxes). But they have had plenty of opportunities to modify Prop. 13, yet it remains as popular as ever.

And yet while voters may agree with conservatives on fiscal matters, they have no interest in electing conservatives to public office. The Legislature may be at 13 percent approval, but not one incumbent legislator has lost his or her seat in recent times.

Will next year’s campaign focus on who killed California? No candidate in either party seems willing to take on their ideologues and talk about difficult changes. Voters seem quite satisfied voting for Democrats who will continue strangling business with more mandates and regulations, and for Republicans happy to continue starving the government beast with no new tax pledges.

It would be nice to think the next governor’s election may change all of this, but don’t hold your breath.

Tony Quinn is co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of legislative and congressional elections.

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