''Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die!"
Such was the response of the late Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley to a constituent complaining about the lack of city services as the recently adopted Proposition 13 was siphoning local revenues up to Sacramento. If Bradley's point was relevant in 1978, it's even more so in 2009.
Pick up any newspaper, or turn on radio or television and you'll hear so-called pundits proclaim that California's fiscal policies are likely to turn it into a Third World economy. Few would disagree that this state has been poorly managed and that its once-golden reputation has been badly tarnished by fiscal, governmental and initiative processes driven by special interests, political posturing and a complete lack of vision.
I hearken back to my first years in California when, under the guidance of then-Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, the state extended its transportation network, created a state-of-the-art aqueduct system and expanded its higher education system (which was free to California residents) into one of the nation's finest.
Those heady days are gone. Today it's all about protecting "mine." Our society seems permeated by the belief that we can have it all better schools, safer neighborhoods, improved public transportation and quality health care without any personal sacrifice. At the very mention of increased fees or taxes, the Howard Jarvis types in our midst are out in force raging against "out of control government spending." These tactics have caused major disruptions in the legislative process and motivated poor public policy decisions, such as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's rescission of the state's increased motor vehicle license fee in 2004 that immediately added $4 billion to the existing deficit!
Change in attitude
The change in Californians' attitudes toward being willing to put personal interests aside for the general good and welfare can probably be traced to the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. At that time, local property taxes were increasing at an alarming rate, causing homeowners on fixed incomes to be faced with the loss of their homes. Rather than fixing the problem, the Legislature dithered, allowing special interests to place an initiative on the ballot that passed overwhelmingly. Proposition 13 capped the tax rate at 1 percent and among other provisions shifted the responsibility for allocating property taxes from local jurisdictions to the state, requiring local governments to go hat in hand to Sacramento to receive much of their annual revenue.
California has never really recovered its fiscal sanity from this Draconian action. Local governments, which traditionally provide most of the services we expect, have seen their budgets consistently raided to meet state budget shortfalls. This among other factors has caused the once highly prized Southern California trauma network to unravel, our community-based mental health care system to melt down and the Los Angeles County jail system to be on the edge of imploding. With property values declining precipitously, and with them tax assessments, it might be a prudent time to reconsider Proposition 13 in light of the state's current fiscal crisis.
Regardless of what is done about Proposition 13, it's clear that the deficit cannot be eliminated by simply cutting programs and services. I believe the Legislative Analyst's Office has determined that almost all law enforcement, higher education and prison systems would have to cease operations if we're to balance the budget without increasing revenues. This is obviously unthinkable.
The Legislature and the governor have come up with an imperfect scheme to balance the budget. This requires higher sales and income taxes, vehicle license fees and the passage of several initiatives to be voted on by the populace May 19. Even with the passage of all of these initiatives (which seems doubtful), California will still face at least an $8 billion deficit next year.
Clearly in order to regain its golden luster, this state needs to seek sacrifice from its constituents, while simultaneously cleaning up the mess in Sacramento. Asking for sacrifice from citizens in this time of deep economic distress isn't easy, but for too long our leaders have lulled us into a sense of false security, putting off the tough decisions that can no longer be ignored.
The time has come for us to grow up and accept some responsibility for the future of this state. California isn't falling into the Pacific. It's still one of the world's most potent economies and with some effort to put aside our own narrow self-interests and see the bigger picture, it can surely regain its reputation as the Golden State.
Clive Hoffman owns a public relations firm in Beverly Hills, and he is vice chairman of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust.
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