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The 1-cent flip-flop

Schwarzenegger deserves credit for being willing to reverse his stand on taxes. Too bad he might have to.

August 06, 2008

One of the more refreshing recent utterances on the political talk-show circuit came earlier this summer when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that flip-flopping has gotten a bad rap. People live and they learn, the governor noted. There is nothing wrong with backing away from a mistake, as long as the person switching positions is honest about it. "You can change your mind," he said.

Schwarzenegger's quite sensible approach can be extended a half-step to the obvious point that cleaving to a position one has come to see as just plain wrong would be irresponsible and intellectually dishonest. That approach applies to the governor's reported suggestion of a temporary 1-cent sales tax increase, coupled with budget reform, as a way to rescue Democratic and Republican lawmakers from their current standoff on a state budget that already is 36 days late. Schwarzenegger deserves credit, not scorn, for being willing to back away from his campaign pledge -- fairly typical of California candidates -- of no new taxes, ever.

Still, it's hard not to take the suggestion as a sad reminder of the state's infinitely long learning curve. Voters jettisoned Gov. Gray Davis for many reasons, including a general and not wholly unearned dislike and mistrust. But at the top of the list -- and at the top of Schwarzenegger's campaign agenda -- was fury over reinstating a vehicle license fee that had been in place for decades but was lowered in recent years of abundance. That "car tax" was so bad, Schwarzenegger said, that Davis should be recalled and replaced; the gap in revenues surely could be filled by the waste, fraud and abuse that would be so easy to find and fix.

Davis was recalled, Schwarzenegger was elected, and the new governor re-lowered the car tax. Six billion dollars a year was removed from the state's budget, and the hole has never been filled. Schwarzenegger, like scores of angry reformers who preceded him, came to see that there really weren't billions to be had in the fabled waste, fraud and abuse. The state really does have to strip aid to children, the elderly and the poor (and shift the burden of unaddressed problems to future generations) or get additional revenue from taxpayers.

The sales tax increase would bring in -- you guessed it -- $6 billion a year, with the burden shifted from vehicle owners to a tax at the till, which hits low-earners the hardest. But it would expire after Schwarzenegger, finally enlightened about California's true budget dilemma, has been replaced, perhaps by the next outsider candidate who promises voters lower taxes and an all-out assault on Sacramento's ever-receding mirage of waste, fraud and abuse.

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