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Saving the state would cost $260 each

Approving Gov. Brown's proposal to extend sales, vehicle and income tax hikes for five years would preserve education and mental health programs from excessive cuts. Even the L.A. Chamber of Commerce is on board.

March 23, 2011|Steve Lopez

Anybody out there know what it would cost each and every Californian to keep teachers teaching, firefighters fighting fires and crooks in jumpsuits?

We keep hearing about Gov. Brown's proposal to extend several temporary tax increases for another five years — the sales, vehicle and income tax hikes approved by former Gov. Schwarzenegger — but we don't hear much about the price.

So I asked State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) over the weekend and one of his staffers sent me the breakdown.

It would be a little different for everyone, depending on income, spending habits, family size and the car you drive. But the average continuing cost for every man, woman and child is $260 a year.

Nobody wants to hand over that kind of money to the government, but the alternative stinks like last week's garbage. Even if the taxes are extended, the state would have to whack roughly $13 billion to make ends meet. Without the tax extension that amount would grow to something like $26 billion.

If it's all cuts, the consequences will be ugly. Public schools would lose about $5 billion, higher education about $1 billion. In a speech last week to the Legislature, Steinberg said, the legislative analyst's office warned "we will have to keep low-level offenders in the community, we will have to eliminate parole, but we will have to do all of that without any resources for local public safety officials…"

Steinberg was in Los Angeles recently and we met to talk about the Mental Health Services Act, or Proposition 63. Steinberg, the godfather of Prop. 63, had reluctantly agreed to surrender $860 million of those voter-approved funds to help fill the deficit.

"It kind of makes me sick," Steinberg told legislators last week in Sacramento, adding that 17,000 people like my buddy Nathaniel Ayers are in recovery thanks to Prop. 63. But sacrifice is necessary, he went on, "to put the fiscal crisis behind us here in the state of California."

We're actually a long way from putting it behind us. I said last week that L.A. Unified could get smacked with a $408-million budget deficit in the worst-case scenario, but it turns out that estimate was low. When I told school board member Tamar Galatzan about the possible $5-billion education cut, she said LAUSD usually absorbs 10% of the damage.

I'm no math wizard, but I think that comes to $500 million.

Megan Reilly, the district's chief financial officer, told me it's too early to know how it will play out. But she said the deficit could reach $600 million or greater, with several thousand teachers, librarians and others losing their jobs. This in a district that has already lost thousands of employees and trimmed $1.5 billion in the last three years.

"I can't imagine what this state will look like with students we can't afford to educate," said Galatzan, noting that California's spending per pupil is 47th in the nation when cost-of-living differences are factored in.

So what do we do about it? Let the voters decide, suggests an unlikely source.

When I think Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, I think solid citizens in business suits griping about taxation and regulation between bites of Caesar salad at the Pacific Dining Car.

But late last month, chamber chief Gary Toebben and his executive board endorsed Brown's budget proposal, tax extensions and all. Toebben reasoned that it's "fiscally responsible" because without a combination of tough cuts and taxes, there'd be "a dramatic reduction in education, infrastructure and social services."

Toebben told me the chamber at first was inclined to balance the books with nothing but cuts. But then he went to the L.A. Times website and played with the budget-balancing calculator, trimming health and welfare programs, prisons, higher education and K-12. He kept coming up short.

"I started out with a 10% cut in K-12 when I went through it the first time, and I still had another $14 or $15 billion to cut, so I just kept going back through and kept cutting."

When he was done, California was a mess. Roughly two dozen chamber board members agreed that $26 billion in cuts would hurt too many people and businesses, so they unanimously supported letting Californians vote on Brown's proposal.

It's still a chamber of commerce, though, and Toebben wants something in return. He and his members want pension reform, including some givebacks from public employee unions, caps on spending to avoid future budget disasters, and a limit on the "unreasonable delay" of projects on environmental grounds.

Democrats have to deliver at least some of that.

Republicans have to agree to let voters decide on the tax extension.

And then it's up to us to decide whether we want to continue to pay that $260 apiece we've been paying in taxes —about $22.00 a month — to maintain a degree of civility and humanity or let it all go to hell.

On Monday, a packet the size of an old Sears catalog landed on my desk. I hear daily screams from parents, students and teachers who fear they're about to get crushed, but this was impressive — 252 letters from Palms Middle School students begging administrators to spare teachers and legislators to put the tax extension proposal before voters.

"Please just do something," wrote one student. "PLEASE!!!!!"

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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