Fighting An “Emergency” With One Hand Tied Behind Our Backs

Our ongoing series on the California budget is interrupted by an “emergency.” With California state budget deficit projections rising from $10 billion to $14 billion the Governor plans to declare a budget “emergency,” saying he might propose “slashing” the state’s budget by 10% “across the board.”
But doesn’t a budget involve spending and revenues? Why is the Governor tying one hand behind our backs? Why is the Governor only proposing that the people who are in a position to really need our government’s help be the ones who must sacrifice in this “emergency?”

I’ll begin with some background for those readers who don’t spend their days scouring California budget news. According to Saturday’s San Jose Mercury News story, Fiscal emergency for California,

Facing a projected $14 billion budget deficit, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Friday said he will declare a fiscal emergency, which will allow the governor and lawmakers to cut spending more quickly and also sets the stage for slashing state services and programs – perhaps by as much as 10 percent.

Who will be most affected by these cuts? The rich? The powerful? What do you think the odds of that are? According to the San Jose Mercury News story,

Much of California’s general fund budget, which totals $102 billion for the 2007-08 fiscal year that began July 1, is designated for education, transportation and other uses. Therefore, cuts often fall disproportionately on social services and the poor, elderly and disabled residents who rely on them.

But in an “emergency” why would the Governor make a pre-emptive announcement that takes half of the state’s budget options off the table? A budget consists of spending and revenues. Yet the Governor proposes to solve the problem entirely by cutting government services like education, social services and law enforcement, and is not even discussing raising taxes. Shouldn’t half of the solutions toolkit warrant half of the discussion?
This one-sided debate on budget priorities is gaining attention. A Dec. 9 Los Angeles Times op-ed, Why won’t The Times talk tax hikes?, by Robert Cruickshank, a political science teacher, addressed this unbalanced approach, writing, “There are ways for the governor to balance the budget without cutting spending.” Questioning a one-sided approach to solving budget problems, he continued,

Here’s the problem. The politics of the budget crisis are in large part shaped by media coverage. When the state’s largest and most influential paper focuses on spending — while largely ignoring the revenue side — in budget articles, it implies that the solution to the budget crisis is slashing spending rather than raising taxes. That’s not balanced journalism.

Citing several pieces that discussed cutting spending but not raising taxes, Cruickshank wrote,

To its credit, The Times, in a Nov. 9 editorial titled “Red-ink realism,” correctly noted that Schwarzenegger is partly to blame for the budget mess by lowering the vehicle-license fee. But rather than call for tax increases — or even just a study of possible new sources of revenue — to pay for locked-in or new spending, the editorial offered up the bromide that California needs bold, courageous leadership to solve the budget problem.

This debate is not just happening in California. A recent New York Times op-ed by Robert Frank, Reshaping the Debate on Raising Taxes, addressed how a reluctance to discuss taxes affects the country. Frank wrote,

POWERFUL anti-tax rhetoric has made legislators at every level of government afraid to talk publicly about a need to raise taxes. The constituents of the few who dare speak are typically bombarded with attack ads that go something like this: “It’s your money, but your esteemed senator thinks the bureaucrats in Washington know how to spend it more wisely than you do.”
Because of our inability to talk sensibly about taxes, the United States has been sliding toward second-class status in the world economy. …

And California is well along the path to second-class status as well. All we need to do is visit our schools or drive on our roads to see what the drumbeat of anti-tax, budget-cutting propaganda brings us.
It is tricks like declaring an “emergency” while taking half of the possible solution off the table, while at the same time our newspapers and other information sources refuse to inform the public of all of the ways that budget problems can be addressed, that got us where they are. This is not a sustainable path. The day must come when the budget just breaks down: when there is nothing left to cut, the interest paid on all the bonds catches up to us, and we wake up to see that our California Dream was sold off to the lowest bidder. It is better that we wake up now and reclaim the dream, asking those who have benefited most from the state we built to contribute their share.
California should consider closing tax loopholes for the wealthiest Californians and making big corporations pay their fair share, such as an oil severance tax. We’re the only state in the country where oil drilling isn’t taxed. In fact, Alaska taxes oil drilling to such an extent that residents pay no income tax, and instead receive an annual distribution from the state — and along with that the state is using oil tax money to build up a trust fund that guarantees these payments to the state’s citizens will continue even after all the oil is gone! Why isn’t the Governor proposing lasting solutions like these to the benefit of the citizens of California?