California's Catch-22: Higher Taxes or Fewer School Days

California's Catch-22: Higher Taxes or Fewer School Days

By Reed Galen - June 28, 2012

Here in California we do things differently -- everyone says so. In San Francisco it's cold in the summer, we watch sunsets over the ocean instead of sunrises, and in Los Angeles the regular-people foibles of movie stars lead the local newscasts. And, speaking of movies, we don't experience "Groundhog Day" in February. It's in June, when the geniuses in Sacramento try to cobble together a state budget each year.

This year, like every year, we have another state budget deficit -- this one is $16 billion -- and, as always, lawmakers have the same solution: raise taxes. That’s not easy to do as California continues to struggle with stubbornly high unemployment, companies leaving for greener pastures, and partisan gridlock so severe that it makes the 405 at rush hour look like the Autobahn.

In 2012, the politicians have a new pitch to the citizenry, however. Vote an increase in the sales tax or we’ll start whittling away at the school year for your kids. Californians have come to regard Sacramento’s siren song of ever-more revenue the same way they think about earthquakes: something bad might actually happen, and it could be very bad, but so far a little shake here and there isn’t going to persuade anyone to cower in the bathtub.

This year, Gov. Jerry Brown, the legislative leadership and their politically powerful (and well-funded) allies have placed yet another tax increase on the November ballot. If the last eight tries were any indication, this effort will fare poorly when Election Day arrives.

The latest initiative also takes the risk of raising California’s already-healthy sales tax. While an additional tax on those who earn $250,000 or more per year probably polls well, the sales tax looks an awful lot like an albatross.

Worse than all the insider machinations that got the measure on the ballot is the nature of the threat being issued to try to win support for it.

As part of a “balanced budget” agreement between Brown and the legislature to solve this year’s deficit, the school year was already cut by one week to 175 days. To add truancy to insult, two education bills going through the legislature this week would allow school districts to shorten the school year to 160 days in the two budget years ahead should the governor’s tax initiative not pass this fall.

To put that in real world-terms, for parents and kids that lops four school weeks -- a month of education -- off the academic year. When districts like Los Angeles’ already contend with a massive dropout problem, depriving students of yet another month worth of instruction is unconscionable.

That’s where we are in California today. Voters are given a Hobson’s choice by those elected to look after out interests: Support a tax increase on yourselves or the kids lose. Which is it? Are you really so greedy that you’d deprive your children, society’s most precious possession, of the education they deserve and that they need to compete in a 21st century economy?

To the Sacramento set, this seems to be a perfectly logical choice. They’re certainly not going to make any hard choices that might upset the house of cards they’ve balanced precariously atop the wants and needs of well-funded special interests.

Indeed, if Californians believed anything anyone in Sacramento said about anything, they might be willing to crack open their wallets and experience more pain for the good of the state. This was last attempted during a special election in 2009, and it too failed. At least that effort had a reform attached to it. This time, it’s just threats.

We Californians, though, are wise to the scam. If we give them more money, our kids’ classes won’t get smaller, the schools overall won’t improve and when they graduate from high school their chances of getting into a UC school will still be slim (and more expensive at that).

At this point our leaders play chicken at their own peril. Though California is a Democratic state, its voters are not monolithic. We know the difference between good policy and bad politics. Come November, the governor’s tax measure will likely fail, and our students will likely suffer as a result. Meanwhile, those who preserve the status quo remain unaffected and unaccountable.

Trust is earned, not given -- take note of any of the public surveys that show the legislature’s approval number barely high enough to qualify for a driver’s license. Sacramento’s tank is empty -- of trust, leadership, ideas and any concept of how to do more with less, and come up with a plan other than one that involves asking Californians to accept a Catch-22. They haven’t earned our trust in many years and they certainly haven’t earned our votes. 

Reed Galen is a political strategist in California. He was John McCain's deputy campaign manager until July 2007.

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