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Voters need facts, not myths

State government's level of taxing and spending is about the same today as it was decades ago, when Ronald Reagan was governor.

January 16, 2012|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • Voters need to be able to separate fact from myth when they cast their ballots.
Voters need to be able to separate fact from myth when they cast their ballots. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

From Sacramento — Californians are heading into an intense, critical debate over the level of public service they're willing to pay for. So it's time to puncture some myths.

Everyone's entitled to his own opinion, as the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say, but not his own facts.

Voters owe it to themselves to separate myth from fact as they begin pondering Gov. Jerry Brown's planned November ballot initiative to temporarily raise about $7 billion annually from higher income taxes on the rich and sales taxes on everyone. It's either that or deeper cuts in education and other services, the governor warns.

Myth No. 1: There's no such thing as a temporary tax increase. They all become permanent.

Fact: That's just talk-show spiel. Temporary state taxes almost never become permanent.

There's only one exception that I can recall. A temporary half-cent sales tax turned into essentially a permanent local tax in 1993 with the voters' approval. All the revenue was dedicated to local law enforcement and fire protection.

Myth No. 2: Taxes have gone through the roof in California.

Fact: They've been held down. Even if Brown's tax hikes are approved by voters, the state tax burden will be basically what it was back when Ronald Reagan was governor in the 1970s.

In Reagan's last year in Sacramento, state taxes amounted to $6.89 per $100 of personal income. Currently, the level is $6.45. With the hikes, it would be $6.67, according to the State Department of Finance, which charts such data. The high tax point was $7.96 in 1999.

Also, according to the finance department, California ranks 19th nationally in state and local taxes and fees, at $16.42 per $100 of personal income. The highest-taxing states relative to income are Alaska, Wyoming and New York.

Myth No. 3: California's spending has been out of control.

Fact: It's on a relatively tight rein. The deficit-ridden state General Fund has been cut by 16% in the last four years, the overall state budget by 2%.

One example: Welfare, the poster child of waste for many on the right, has been slashed to the grant levels of 25 years ago: $638 monthly for a family of three.

But let's go back to that conservative icon Reagan. General Fund spending per $100 of income is lower today, $5.14, than it was in his final year, $5.89.

Historically, what really bumped up state spending was Proposition 13 in 1978. That property tax cut prompted the state to begin doling out money to revenue-robbed local governments and schools.

Myth No. 4: California suffers from an exceptionally bloated bureaucracy.

Fact: That's baloney. Again, the Reagan era puts it in perspective. State government employs roughly the same number of workers per 1,000 population today as then, nine.

Moreover, we have the fifth-lowest number of state employees relative to population in the nation, according to Steve Levy, executive director of the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy. We're 23% below the national average.

Make that also the fifth-lowest nationally when state and local government employees are combined.

Texas' bureaucracy is bigger relatively, both state and local.

"We're understaffed compared to the national average," Levy says. "We're providing services with far fewer employees. It's pretty dramatic."

But hold on! Time out!

How big a slice of the budget is going to California's state employees — in pay, pension and perks — compared to 20 or 40 years ago? Sure, it's a relatively trim workforce. But how much of the tax pie is it consuming compared to the Reagan era?

Couldn't get an answer to that one from the finance department. I'll keep trying.

Myth No. 5: California teachers are pampered and overpaid.

Fact: My wife is a retired teacher, so I'm biased. But it's blarney.

Yes, the average salary for California teachers, $69,400, is the second-highest in the nation, behind New York's. But California's cost of living also is very high; resale housing prices here are 75% steeper than the national average.

Moreover, California teachers may have to work harder. We have the nation's fourth-lowest ratio of K-12 educators to population, Levy says. California is 20% below the national average; Texas is 25% above. Meanwhile, our proportion of students to population is above average.

California also ranks 46th in K-12 spending per pupil and 47th as a percentage of income.

Funding for elementary schools through community colleges has been chopped by $9 billion in the last four years, from $56.6 billion to $47.6 billion. Brown says he'll need to whack $4.8 billion more if his taxes aren't approved.

We could go on and on.

But let's acknowledge one fact: There's too much government waste and always has been. The Times regularly unearths it. Democratic legislators could do a better job of rooting it out.

Brown is proposing to eliminate a few dozen boards and commissions he deems wasteful. That's probably good policy, but it would save only peanuts. It's sort of like his clamping down on the use of state cars and cellphones. Nice media, but not much money.

More important, with serious billions at stake, the governor seems to be trying to persuade the Legislature to buck labor and adopt major public pension reform, including for local government. That's where most of the extravagance occurs, especially among executives and politically powerful public safety officers.

That certainly will — and should — be part of the heated debate over taxes and services.

And whichever opinion prevails, it should be based on fact, not myth.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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