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California | Steve Lopez / POINTS WEST

Initiative That We Need Isn't on a Ballot

March 03, 2004|Steve Lopez

Before you knock yourself out celebrating the triumph of Propositions 57 and 58, put down the party hats for a moment and listen to this:

Despite all the promises of revolutionary change in Sacramento, those propositions were the equivalent of fixing a leaky roof on a house that's sliding down a hill.

We've still got deficits down the road, including a possible $7-billion to $8-billion gap next year.

We still foolishly rely too heavily on sales and income taxes and not enough on property taxes.

We still don't have spending caps.

And we still haven't banned borrowing our way out of trouble.

In the history of man, $15 billion never bought so little.

So whose fault is it?

Point a finger in any direction and you've got a bull's-eye. We can blame the governor, the Legislature and ourselves. But I've already taken batting practice on all three, and now's the time to decide whether anyone cares to get serious about honest fixes.

I'm not counting on the Legislature, which seldom has any appetite for tough decisions.

And I have no great faith in the public, which will return to the usual distractions, such as whether the Lakers can pull themselves together down the stretch.

So if we're going to get serious, it'll have to begin with Big Boy.

For all his deceptions and contradictions, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is already a better governor than Gray Davis ever dreamed of becoming. On the other hand, Gary Coleman might have been, too.

Republicans love Arnold, Democrats fear him, and both are willing to work with him.

So now would be a good time for Arnold to make good on his promise of action, action, action, and start doing the difficult stuff, no matter how unpopular it might be.

He can start by rescuing his pal Warren Buffett from the Siberia he was exiled to for speaking out about property taxes, and putting Buffett in charge of a committee to reconsider Proposition 13.

And no, I'm not suggesting we go back to the time before 1978, when little old ladies lived in fear of being thrown out of their own homes because of soaring property taxes. But I live in a house worth roughly three times the value of the house my parents live in, and my tax bill is 10 times as much as theirs.

You don't have to throw out Prop. 13, but for reasons of fairness alone, there's room for some tinkering with both residential and commercial property taxes. And while we're tinkering, state Treasurer Phil Angelides and UC Berkeley professor Bruce Cain both recommended dropping the two-thirds voter approval requirement for raising local taxes.

Cities and counties ought to be able to decide what services are important and how to pay for them, they said. As it is, they're at the mercy of the state, which sticks up local communities every time it gets low on cash.

"We need to figure out what tax revenues belong at the local level and which at the state level, and try to get the state out of being the banker it's become," said Cain. "The least trusted level of government is the state ... and voters are more comfortable when they pay local taxes and see the results in their own community."

Speaking of taxation without representation, Schwarzenegger went to Washington, D.C., last week to demand something better than a 77-cent return to California on each federal tax dollar we pay.

He came back empty-handed.

Sure, we all know times are tough for states, given the record-setting budget deficit projected in Washington. But not every state has a governor who goes around calling himself the Collectinator, so maybe it's time for Schwarzenegger to go bang on that door again.

And it might be time, as well, for the governor to put up or shut up on his long-promised audit. As Cain sees it, one of the most useful things the state can do is move beyond the myth that the books can be balanced by exposing the holy trinity of budget deficits -- waste, fraud and abuse.

Let's go ahead and have the mother of all audits, Cain suggested, just so we don't have to keep hearing we can knock down taxes, build up services and perform any number of modern miracles. Only then can we have an adult conversation about what kind of state government we want, and how much we're willing to pay for it.

Actually, we might not be capable of an adult conversation even then.

First, we'd have to dynamite the current district boundaries that push conservatives so far to the right and liberals so far to the left, they can't agree on the time of day.

If there were a middle, you might be able to work out deals now and then. For example, Democrats might say to Republicans, OK, we'll give you spending caps, but you give us the income tax brackets former Gov. Ronald Reagan used on the rich.

None of these changes will be easy, of course. But we didn't elect a former Mr. Universe just to mug for the cameras and do light lifting, did we?

Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.

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