California, you may have heard, is broke. Really broke. So broke that yesterday the Regents of the University of California began brainstorming what to do should additional revenues fail to materialize in the event Governor Jerry Brown’s pet initiative to raise taxes fails at the ballot box this fall.
Given how much of Brown’s plans for the future revolve around this ballot proposition—Prop. 30—you’d think the governor would be more careful about the messages he sends to us voters. What he’s done, as opposed to what he’s said, strike a lot of us as reason to vote against him.
I happen to know a prominent Californian who knows Brown, and though their politics are poles apart, he calls the governor “a sober and serious politician who’s trying his best. He’s definitely not Governor ‘Moonbeam”—the nickname bestowed on Brown his first time in office more than three decades ago.
Maybe, but moonbeamism is an apt word to describe Brown’s consuming affection for the pie-in-the-sky idea of constructing America’s first bullet train, connecting Los Angeles with San Francisco. Two months ago, his very public lobbying of the state legislature got him $8 billion for the train’s inaugural steps.
That’s all fine and good for him. But how could that boondoggle not have cost him thousands, maybe millions, of votes for the ballot initiative that he’s framed as essential to the state’s financial health?
To the average Californian, like me, there’s so much wrong with the train proposal that its route through the lightly populated Central Valley instead of along the coast and its less-than-bullet speed are now beside the point.
The most optimistic estimates of final cost project a shortfall of $60 billion, and the most optimistic projection of ridership leaves the train having to be subsidized to the tune of hundreds of dollars a ticket until Captain Kirk begins dictating his captain’s logs. Make that Capt. Picard.
Not a single ordinary Californian expects this train to get built. Nor do we want it, not when everything else in this formerly golden state is crumbling either physically or metaphorically, and our actual budget deficit, free of accounting legerdemain, may be $20 billion.
When you add in unfunded liabilities like pensions for public-employee unions, we’re not much more solvent than Greece.
So we were surprised that the governor would waste so much political capital and dwindling credibility on this fast train to nowhere given that the Prop. 30 tax hike would optimistically raise $2 billion less than the train allocation.
It goes without saying that Brown would love to simply sign higher taxes into law; if possible, he’d have done it on taking office early last year. But California requires bills that raise taxes to get yeas from two-thirds of the legislature before reaching the governor’s desk, something that even in heavily Democratic California is a nigh impossibility.
That’s why, in November, we will be asked to vote yes on the governor’s initiative to increase our state sales tax another quarter percent—that is, a mere penny on every four dollars spent; no big deal, right?—and establish three new income-tax rates on those with taxable incomes over $250,000, $300,000, and $500,000 respectively.
In theory, this should be easy, at least according to those who imagine that, like them, voters have few scruples and will readily vote to increase some other guy’s taxes (I actually don’t include Brown in that group).
But in this last June’s election, weeks before Brown’s public cheerleading for the train funds, millions of Californians had already sent him and our legislature a loud message that they must’ve been too preoccupied to hear: Sacramento could have the train funds or they could possibly have the tax hike—but not both.
By the closest margin in California’s history of ballot propositions, Prop 29—the California Cancer Research Act, which would’ve added a buck to each pack of cigarettes—was defeated. The counting took weeks and came down to fewer than several thousand votes out of five million cast.
Prop 29’s authors and major supporters were dumbfounded. They blamed the loss on the tobacco companies’ poisoning our minds with $47 million worth of “propaganda.” You see, at 15 percent, California has the second lowest smoking rate in the country; only Mormon-infused Utah is lower.
Their cynical calculation was that 85 voters with no lungs in the game would vote against the pockets of the 15 once they heard that 60 percent of the new funds raised—nearly half a billion dollars annually—were allocated for research “into the prevention, detection, treatment, and potential cures of cancers and other tobacco-related illness, including heart disease.”
Who could be against all that, especially if it doesn’t cost them anything?
As someone who prefers to be at least two zip codes upwind of a burning cigarette, I’m certain that Prop 29 lost for one overarching reason: Californians have grown deaf to hysterical, doomsday warnings—exactly the kind, from a fiscal perspective, that Governor Brown and fellow supporters of Prop 30 will soon be chanting like a mantra.
(You will not be surprised to learn that, though many initiatives qualified for the fall ballot, our secretary of state placed Brown’s first; hence its number. Conventional wisdom is that propositions are more likely to pass the higher they appear on the ballot.)
Here, for example, was Doug Ulman, president of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which took a lead position in support of Prop 29:
The defeat of this life-saving initiative is a genuine tragedy. Big Tobacco lied to voters to protect its profits and spent $50 million to ensure it can continue peddling its deadly products to California kids.
Well, that’s one way to look at it. Another is that a genuine tragedy is a tree falling onto a house, killing kids.
As for the lies, they were what’s known as truths. The ads noted factually that the money raised in-state by the tax increase wouldn’t necessarily remain here for research—and that the funds would establish yet another bureaucratic entity, operated with the remaining 40 percent of the revenue, to collect and distribute the monies without public input or scrutiny.
Then there’s the fact that, even if the proposition had passed with 100 percent of the vote, tobacco companies would still have been free to peddle their “deadly products”. Prop 29 neither criminalized tobacco nor allowed anyone under 18 from buying it.
In California, as elsewhere, years of crying wolf like that have inured the populace, who actually does recognize that the beasts are actually baying at our door. We just no longer trust our elected hunters to shoot straight. Especially after $8 billion that doesn’t exist can be found for a quixotic boondoggle.
When the campaign-commercial season reaches its critical final weeks, Prop 30 will be sold as a last-ditch effort to save public education. Ads galore will paint grim scenarios of what will befall “the children” and thus “our future as Californians” if we don’t vote to raise taxes and “save our schools.”
Most legislators will join the robocall chorus, not only in the hopes of sparing themselves from having to solve the budget problem with some hard choices, but also to ensure that they continue receiving the largesse of public-employee unions whose influence would be threatened by (further) draconian cuts necessitated by the proposition’s failure.
Indeed, the primary financial backers of the signature drive to get the proposition on the ballot were the same unions whose benefits packages, voted on in better days, are contributing disproportionately to our insolvency.
No matter how cruelly they beg for our votes, though, preserving the status quo of California’s public schools is something fewer taxpayers are inclined to do.
And no wonder. United Teachers of Los Angeles, for example, voted four times in four years to shorten the academic year in order to preserve union jobs—a move necessitated in part by reduced funding resulting from declining enrollment tied to the appalling quality of the education they provide.
UTLA manages to make the thought of shutting down the schools and starting over an appealing one.
Come to think of it, a multibillion-dollar train to nowhere that will never be built anyway is a perfect metaphor for the fate of Proposition 30.
Despite all the scaremongering, six days after Halloween it will lose. But unlike Prop 29, the margin won’t be close. Californians who refused to stick smokers with the tab for, say, melanoma research—which has nothing to do with smoking—will not stick it to themselves so that public employees can remain insulated from the real world and legislators from the consequences of their inaction.