It would be one thing if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the top officials of the state Legislature had pursued all logical and available methods for solving the state budget crisis.
But while these failing leaders trumpet an unprecedented crisis, they don’t even consider closing a $10 billion per year loophole that’s let many commercial and industrial buildings pay an unfairly low proportion of California’s property taxes for decades. By itself, that could be almost enough revenue to fill this year’s budget hole.
They also don’t think about restoring more than a small part of the vehicle license tax reductions that cost the state at least $4 billion per year, cuts that were the governor’s first move after taking office in late 2003 and are responsible for about $20 billion of the current $42 billion three-year budget hole.
Until they do those things, it’s hard to see how they can justify asking big sacrifices of both schoolchildren and state employees.
When it comes to state workers, forget the University of California administrators, gubernatorial aides, and overtime-hogging prison guards whose pay soars well into six figures. They might see some reductions for awhile with either furloughs or a 10 percent pay cut, but they’ll be fine.
Not so for most of the 238,000 employees who face either pay cuts or two days of unpaid furloughs each month for the foreseeable future under a Schwarzenegger executive order.
“I gross $36,000 per year, before retirement and health insurance are deducted from my pay,” emails one state Department of Education employee. “I am the primary financial support for my son and myself. Most thinking people would not propose a tax of $400 per month on heads of households who make $40,000 per year or less, but that is what a furlough amounts to.”
Yes, the sales tax increases proposed by both Schwarzenegger and Democrats in the Legislature are regressive in that every Californian would pay the same percentage regardless of income. But furloughs are even less fair.
Rank-and-file workers in state agencies like Caltrans and the Department of Motor Vehicles and state parks had little to do with the current budget deficit. Neither did firefighters or highway patrol officers.
“I don’t understand why we’re being singled out,” writes an anxious highway maintenance worker. “I am a 35-year Caltrans worker and I think Arnold is absolutely ridiculous to take our salary, plus inflict all the other cuts he proposes on us as well. We are having just as hard a time paying our bills as the non-state employee.”
State employees complain their pay is targeted, while their bosses suffer no penalties for steadily mismanaging contracts, as with the prison system’s decades-long refusal to negotiate the same hospital rates paid by insurance companies.
Then there are the schoolkids, from kindergarten through high school.
Schwarzenegger wants to trim five days from their current 180-day school year at the same time he’s closing most state offices two days per month.
While it can be argued that public employee unions are partly to blame for the budget mess, no one can blame first-graders. But cutting their school year would not only create problems and expenses for parents, it would almost surely lead to higher dropout rates, lower test scores and lowered skill levels for the state’s high school graduates. It would probably also interfere with recruiting new teachers, as loss of class time and commensurately lower pay would surely harm teacher morale.
So Schwarzenegger’s plan is both unfair and destructive. In every detail, from furloughs to Medi-Cal cuts, it victimizes workers and the working poor more than the wealthy. Children of the wealthy who attend private schools would not see their class time and academic opportunities reduced. Computer-literate members of the upper and middle economic demographics could still conduct business with the state online, while those in lower educational and economic groups who tend to have less cybernetic training would at least be inconvenienced by shuttered Department of Motor Vehicles offices and others.
Every budget plan now under consideration contains these kinds of injustices.
Meanwhile, wealthy investors whose limited partnerships often escape reassessment to higher property tax levels under the rules administering the Proposition 13 property tax initiative won’t be put out at all. And owners of new cars would be asked to increase their license fees by only $12 per vehicle, a pittance compared with the 2003 Schwarzenegger cuts, which often amounted to $200 or more per car or truck.
It adds up to an ugly picture of discrimination against the powerless, victimizing people who had little or nothing to do with creating the state budget crisis while letting plenty of loopholes stand and keeping inefficient, inept government managers in place.