Friday, May 30, 2008

A "Face-Lift" Of Prop.13 Will Not Be At All Easy

Both Bill Stall, a retired Pulitzer Prize winner for the L.A. Times, and Times state political columnist George Skelton have, most appropriately, been writing about California's ever more critical fiscal problems. Inspiration has come from editorial writer Bob Greene and editorial pages editor Jim Newton.

Looking far back in modern history, to the French Revolution, we can't forget that it began with a French fiscal crisis. The Estates-General was summoned to meet in the spring of 1789, because, over many years, the French government had been running out of money, its taxing system was inadequate, and the Revolution soon began. The deliberative body began talking May 5, 1789, and the Bastille fell just two months and nine days later, thrusting France into eventual chaos. When it was all over, after the reign of terror, Napoleon Bonaparte came to power.

Well, as Skelton and Stall have pointed out, and which really cannot be contradicted, California too is saddled with an antiquated, unworkable budget and tax process, and it would seem that reform or even upset, if not revolution, has to be around the corner. The state's needs exceed its tax revenues, and, more and more, a succession of fiscal tricks has not been able to resolve the discrepancy.

Skelton has concentrated on the obstacles in the Schwarzenegger Administration, and the Legislature, to passing a reasonable budget. The governor, after five long years of pledging no new taxes, now has come around to the concept. But he may not be able to command necessary legislative support.

Stall, in an Op Ed Page column yesterday, takes finally a more dire view than Skelton, who usually writes more about process than basic change. Stall, who also was a former gubernatorial press secretary under Jerry Brown, says the time has come for "a fair revision" of Proposition 13 under which property tax increases are supposedly limited to 2% a year, and assessments of real property value are not changed until a property is sold. Even then, they are capped at 1% of assessed property value. (Bond issues approved by the voters mean that in practice increases beyond these limits do occur, but not enough in most cases to allow the state to meet its needs).

Stall recognizes that reform will not be easy, and to get by the loathing of homeowners, particularly those straining to meet higher mortgage rates and living on fixed, or in inflationary terms, declining real incomes, he proposes that any change in Proposition 13 continue to protect their interests. But he would lift prohibitions on increases in commercial property taxes. Also, he would scrap the measure's requirement that tax increases secure a two thirds majority.

That's where he lost me in his column. He probably felt the column was long enough already, or maybe his editors did. But I don't think you can realistically consider any major change in Proposition 13 without considering the fact that both major parties in the Legislature, not to mention the governor's office, are owned by business interests. These entities are so corrupt that the notion they might voluntarily vote against the interests of their own major campaign contributors is close to impossible. Big special interests have the Legislature and the governor in their grip, and little of substance can occur until that grip is broken. We shouldn't hold our breath.

It was Bismarck who once made the sardonic crack that legislating, like sausage making, cannot be too carefully watched, because the process is too grim. The sausage making by the California Legislature is apt to be poisonous.

No, if Proposition 13 is going to be revised, this will take an initiative campaign, and, as we know, those are often fraught with almost insuperable difficulties. Those popular with the voters are often unacceptable to the courts, because they tend to be written in extravagant and constitutionally questionable terms. And the arguments made pro and con such initiatives sink into the irrationality of one-page campaign mailings and 30-second commercials.

Frankly, I have no idea how this will all turn out. It is true that progress in California is being stymied, the investments we need to make in our future are not forthcoming, the state is falling behind others with more reasonable tax systems. But the real-time political situation has led steadily toward paralysis, and it's going to take more than Skelton or Stall and all their progressive thoughts to bring about real change.



Anonymous another old fool said...

The L.A. Times is missing the boat.
In fact the L.A. Times has been missing the boat for a couple of decades now. Why is circulation declining so drastically?

The Taxpayers of the State of California are getting f****d by the federal government.

Why is the state going to h**l in a handbasket? Look to D.C.

California is nothing more than a money tree and a cash cow to the politicians and bureaucrats in D.C.

If all that lost revenue going to D.C. went to Sacramento, the State's fiscal crisis would be solved in an instant.

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