Desiring Everything in an Age of Limits
By LAURENCE DARMIENTO
Corrie Barbara speaks to the needs and fears of many California voters.
The Long Beach mother of two is wary of how politicians spend money and doesn’t want to pay another cent in taxes, despite the state’s enormous budget problems.
But the middle-of-the-road Republican also doesn’t want to see cuts in education, public safety and health care for the poor. In fact, she sees all kinds of unmet public needs, from aging schools to an overburdened transportation system.
“I think the state is in a pretty serious situation,” said Barbara, 31, who works in medical sales. “But we can’t keep taxing all the residents who live here until we bleed them dry.”
Barbara, in short, wants it all or at least close to it. And that’s the problem.
Recent polling suggests that a whopping 75 percent of all Californians believe the state is on the wrong track the most negative assessment since the depths of the early 1990s recession yet voters are wary of giving Sacramento more money to fix the problems. The rapid backlash against increases in vehicle registration fees is an example.
At the same time, Californians have a limited tolerance for spending cuts, especially services they cherish most like K-12 schools, higher education and health and human services. Up to 82 percent of residents want those left alone.
About the only taxes they agree could be raised are those involving the “other guy,” such as sin taxes on cigarettes or perhaps income taxes for the state’s richest residents.
“There is a tendency for the public to want a free lunch, and that includes wanting to have high services, low taxes and a balanced budget,” said John Zaller, a professor of political science at UCLA. “People want high quality at low prices. It’s a consumer impulse.”
The truth may not be so simple.
Despite its recent struggles, the state has a long history of providing top quality public services with taxes that few ever considered burdensome in the decades between World War II and the late 1970s tax revolt.
As newcomers streamed here from other states to take high-paying aerospace and other manufacturing jobs, California built an enviable freeway system, a state university second to none and a monumental water project that fed its growth. Those days are gone, along with much of the aerospace and manufacturing sector. Yet, the memories remain fresh for many old-timers.
“We used to be much richer than any other state with a high average income. Now, we are just like the average, and so with the same level of taxation we don’t raise as much money,” said Henry Brady, a professor of political science at UC Berkeley. “People don’t realize there have been fundamental structural changes in this state.”
A poll conducted in June by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 47 percent of statewide residents thought their overall tax burden was either “much more” or “somewhat more” than it should be, matching the percentage that thought it was “about right.”
There are other explanations for residents’ unwillingness to pay more even as they refuse to see services cut or demand improvements to the state’s transportation system. Specifically, people believe money in Sacramento ends up disproportionately in the hands of special interest groups who fund political campaigns, such as prison guards who recently won a 34 percent pay raise despite the looming budget deficit.
“The unions ask for more money and the politicians can’t seem to say no,” said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
The group maintains that Proposition 13 only slowed the rise in taxes, with the state now having the sixth-highest tax burden in the nation more than enough to pay for needed services if priorities were straight.
That sentiment seems to resonate with residents. The same Public Policy Institute poll found that 60 percent of those surveyed trusted politicians to do what is right only “some of the time,” the lowest level since the poll started keeping track five years ago.
Jean Ross, executive director of the liberal California Budget Project, thinks there is something else at play.
She believes the complex public financing system that developed in the wake of Proposition 13, in which the state raised taxes and then funneled money to communities for schools and other local services, misleads Californians into believing that the state actually pays for few services.
“We have a very complex system of state and local finance, and a greater share of the total package of public services are paid for by the state in California than in other states,” she said. “Yet most people don’t think they are dealing with the state unless they go get their driver’s license at DMV.”
When residents are asked whether they would pay higher local taxes in exchange for specific local services, the support can be surprisingly high. A November Public Policy Institute poll found that 57 percent of those surveyed said they would support raising local sales taxes to pay for transportation projects.
A desire to see concrete results also translates into a willingness to pay for new services funded by the state, as long as there is an assurance that the money will go to where it is promised. That is especially the case for pet concerns funded by bond measures.
In 2004, Californians will vote on a $12.3 billion bond that will provide funding for public schools and universities, just two years after a November 2002 bond measure. Yet, 73 percent of voters said they would support the measure in the Public Policy Institute’s poll.
Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, said he believes voters are “genuinely conflicted.” They want “the stuff” that government provides but they don’t want to pay for it all, truly believing there is significant waste.
Pitney, who has worked for the Republican National Committee and GOP legislators, agrees there is some waste in government, but not at the level many might believe. On the other hand, he said, residents can plainly see dilapidated highways and other public facilities.
“In the Pat Brown era the roads were new and people were hopeful and could see government was doing something,” he said. “Now the roads are old and every commuter has the sense that government is not doing as well as it can.”