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Villaraigosa talks financial sense; now it's Brown's turn

L.A. mayor goes to Sacramento to take on Prop. 13 and more. Where is everyone else?

August 17, 2011|Steve Lopez

Last weekend, a conversation with two teachers from my daughter's public school turned to the likelihood of yet more cutbacks and bigger classes, thanks to a state revenue shortfall.

Two weeks ago, I visited elderly clients with dementia at an adult day healthcare center that might close because of state budget cuts, leaving the vulnerable old folks nowhere to get affordable help.

Ten days ago, on the subject of the sick young man beaten to death in Fullerton, I spoke to an Orange County judge who said budget cutbacks have left her with fewer places to send those who need treatment for mental illness.

Is this the state you wanted to live in?

We squeeze nickels from the young, kick granny in the gut and talk about nothing but scaling back even more.

Not that California is alone. With millions of people out of work, the only political discussion in Washington for months was about shrinking government spending, with scant evidence that such a thing benefits the economy in the long run.

In Iowa, the gaggle of GOP presidential wannabes parroted the same pablum. They were led by Michele Bachmann, whose small farm gets government subsidies. Her husband's clinic gets money from Medicaid.

You can't make it up.

Bachmann and her husband go to church. They want homosexuals to pray away the gay. They're millionaires and they get government subsidies while campaigning for smaller government.

Is anybody awake?

Are you watching?

The gap between haves and have-nots is a canyon, and shrinking the government down to nothing will hurt those who need help the most.

I keep wondering when more people in California's Central Valley, the Inland Empire and the Imperial Valley will realize that their budget-shrinking GOP representatives are destroying their children's schools, driving up college fees, crippling public safety, closing parks and libraries and making it harder to see a doctor.

On Tuesday, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa went to Sacramento to ask why California has become so pessimistic and self-destructive. The state that once invested grandly in its own possibilities is now a shadow of its former self, ruled by what he called the "tea party" economics of the minority.

He called out the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown for lacking the courage to do the honest work of structural change and tax reform in the last round of budgeting, essentially accusing the state's leaders of doing little more than putting new tires on a rundown jalopy.

Was it a campaign speech, with Villaraigosa maybe interested in Brown's job?

Possibly. Villaraigosa is a relatively unpopular mayor without a bright political future at the moment, but maybe that's why he decided to light a flare. The only risk is that with no real power or mandate, he'll be completely ignored.

But a lot of what he said made sense. He argued among other things that as we ruthlessly hack away at public and higher education, we're sabotaging our own recovery, and one study suggests we'll be 1 million college graduates short of the demand for them by 2025.

Weeks ago, Villaraigosa had told me he would use this speech in Sacramento to plant both feet on the billion-volt rail of California politics — Proposition 13.

And he did.

But to make sure he wasn't instantly electrocuted, Villaraigosa offered full protection to homeowners. He said the state should take a bigger bite from commercial property owners who have paid a shrinking percentage of total property tax revenues, and pass on the savings to schools and private individuals whose property taxes are too high.

Villaraigosa knew the booing from the business community could produce a sonic boom, so he tried to mute the response by suggesting the corporate tax be eliminated and employment tax credits be established. I'd add that many small businesses need protection from any tax increases that could drive them under. But the way things are now makes no sense. Newer businesses are paying sky-high property taxes while older ones, including highly profitable corporations, get huge breaks.

Another big-ticket proposal by Villaraigosa is that we should lower the sales tax but apply it more broadly, including to some services that aren't covered now. As the mayor put it, why do we tax doughnuts but not lawyers?

Sacramento should have been talking about all of these things years ago, and with little to show for his time in office so far, Brown ought to get to work. As for those who argue that California has a spending rather than a revenue problem, spending is down dramatically, and the impact is spreading.

In April, my colleague Michael Mishak reported from impoverished Tulare County. Residents there were fearful that additional state cuts — called for by their representative, Assemblywoman Connie Conway — would be devastating.

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