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Governing Is for Leaders, Not Voters : State: Setting taxes is the task of Gov. Deukmejian and the Legislature. It can't be left to opinion polls.

November 05, 1989|MARTIN SMITH | Martin Smith is political editor of the Sacramento Bee.

Question: When was the last time a majority of voters wanted their taxes raised?

Answer: Never.

Anyone waiting for the day when voters demand that stiffer taxes be imposed on them should have superhuman patience. No taxpayer in his right mind has ever wanted to pay more money to the government.

For representative government to work properly, elected lawmakers and chief executives should decide what additional spending is needed for essential programs and, when necessary, raise taxes to meet the costs of these programs. Then, at election time, they must be prepared to justify their decisions.

If they can make a good case for themselves, a fair-minded electorate is unlikely to reject politicians who act courageously on their convictions. But even the risk of political defeat should not deter elected representatives from basing their decisions on what they consider the best public policy.

That's the way the system is supposed to work--although too often it has failed to do so in recent years. Most members of today's generation of politicians have avoided following that script.

We've traveled a long way, mostly downhill, since the days when President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk proudly declaring, "The buck stops here." Today's leaders don't want to lead. Instead, the political game is to find out where the parade of public opinion is heading, and then, and only then, to get out in front.

But weak as leadership generally is in Washington, it's even flabbier in Sacramento--and not just in executive offices, either. Most state legislators, though highly protected in their gerrymandered election districts, display even fewer courageous profiles than California's notoriously cautious governor.

If today's leaders revealed their attitudes with small desk signs the way Truman did, the most appropriate one for most Sacramento politicians would say, "What do the polls show?" On the day that legislative leaders were to meet with Gov. George Deukmejian to decide which taxes should be boosted to pay for earthquake-damage repair, the Los Angeles Times pretty much made the choice for them by publishing the results of a poll that showed the public more willing to accept an increase in the sales tax than in the gasoline levy. Since the survey confirmed what private polls also were showing, Deukmejian and Democratic and Republican legislative leaders agreed to seek a quarter-cent boost in the sales tax over the next 13 months.

Given the circumstances, that probably was the right decision, though many party rank-and-file sought to up the ante as the weekend began. Traditionally, the state levy on gasoline has been used to pay for transportation improvements and maintenance. While freeways and highways are much in need of repair, so are other facilities that have nothing to do with transportation. Also, a temporary boost in the gasoline tax might have threatened chances of gaining voter approval in June of a much-needed permanent increase in the same levy.

In any case, state leaders probably would not have acted differently even if the temporary sales-tax boost had not been sound policy, not as long as polls indicated that was what voters wanted. Fewer politicians than ever want to get out in front of public opinion, although out front is exactly where leaders should be--especially when there may be a need to move in new directions.

There's a reason, of course, why California politicians shy from undertaking real leadership roles. It's the legacy of Proposition 13. The fright put into politicians by the Draconian property-tax-cut initiative engineered by the late Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann continues to work its catatonic effect on California officeholders.

Jarvis and Gann don't bear the ultimate responsibility for the collapse of public confidence in state and local representative government and resulting woes. They achieved success with their 1978 initiative by capitalizing on earlier failures by various government leaders. One failure was on the state level, the other local.

The blundering and halting responses of Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and liberal state legislators to the property-tax crisis made the Prop. 13 revolt inevitable. They could have defused the taxpayer revolt if they had used the state budget surplus to pay for local property-tax rebates. Instead, they dithered and argued over whether the money returned should be a genuine rebate or a form of income redistribution. In the end, they did nothing.

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