Jerry Brown: Feel Free to Raise My California Taxes (But Spend My Money Better!)


On Monday California Governor Jerry Brown revealed his plan to cover a $16 billion deficit: more cuts to welfare and the state health care system (on top of last year's already draconian cuts); a four-day work week for over a million state employees; and slashing over $5 billion in K-12 spending.

As he broke the news at a press conference, Brown remained in character — blunt and straightforward, Gandalf eyebrows narrowed in determination — and stayed on point in his pitch to Californians to approve a ballot initiative this upcoming November that would raise taxes and protect services like education from more cuts. 

Does California have a "spending" problem? Yes. Does California have a "revenue" problem? Yes, too. 

How can one say yes to both things? If you look at the more systemic problem California faces — the lack of accountabiliy — you'll see why. 

There were once days in California that big problems were met with big solutions. Republican governors worked with Democratic legislators to build monumental societal achievements, from the California University Master Plan and the California Water Project. From the 1950s to the early 1970s, California saw massive population, cultural, and economic growth, and bipartisan, solution-oriented government provided the necessary framework for families, students, and businesses to pursue the American dream. 

Taxes were high back then for wage earners above upper middle class. All Californians paid property taxes. But the the majority of that money was spent in communities, neighborhoods, schools, and local infrastructure. City councils and mayors decided how that money was spent, and if residents didn't like it, they'd vote the bastards out. 

All this changed in 1979. Jimmy Carter's "stagflation" was wrecking the California housing market and the property tax code, making many Californians unable to afford their homes. Instead of voting out the politicians responsible, Californians turned to the ballot initiative process — a parallel form of lawmaking (to the legislature) that passed laws via majority vote. A 67% majority passed Proposition 13, which lowered property taxes to 1%. Immediately, Californians saw tax relief. 

But Prop. 13 was more than just taxes. The lesser-known part of the law centralized revenue decision-making in Sacramento. For local governments, with the loss of revenue and its apportioning came the loss of power — and, ultimately, the loss of relevance. School districts, counties, and agencies had to compete with thousands of special interest lobbyists in Sacramento for their slice of the budget pie.

As we saw on Monday, it's a competition they've been losing. Special interests, from unions to corporations, have convinced the legislature to "lock down" funding for pet programs, unrealistic pensions, and other fiscally irresponsible budgetary commitments that, when passed via constitutional amendment, cannot be cut. This is why pensions aren't cut, tax loopholes aren't filled, and government waste and ineffiency isn't solved. There's a reason why people at the bottom rung of society get the shaft when budget cuts happen — they don't have lobbyists.

This history, along with our present-day challenges, compels us to take a good look at the way we choose our leaders, and how we hold them to account. That means returning revenue decision-making to local government, so that people can see how their taxes are spent — and vote accordingly. Get rid of our antiquated First-Past-The-Post election system and replace it with rank-order or preferential voting, to better reflect the needs of our communities. Increase funding for agencies like the state auditors office to more aggresively pursue fraud, waste, and abuse throughout the bureaucracy. 

Polls consistently find that Californians want a strong safety net, exceptional schools, and solid infrastructure — but don't want to pay for it. We can't have our cake and eat it too, which is why I'm saying: Jerry Brown, raise my taxes (but spend it better). Our history shows that we've done it before. We can do it again.