May 23 2012 09:00 AM

And Jerry Brown’s tax measure is absolutely necessary

Will Jerry Brown help a Dem out?

On May 31, the state Citizens Compensation Commission will consider cutting by 5 percent the annual pay of Gov. Jerry Brown and members of the state Legislature. It would match the proposal that Brown issued last week to cut the pay of state employees.

The governor makes $173,987, and the 120 legislators in the Assembly and Senate make $95,291 apiece, not including per-diem pay. Unless our math is horribly wrong, that would amount to a savings of roughly $580,000, meaning state leaders have to find 27,069 more solutions just like that one in order to close an estimated $15.7-billion budget gap for the rest of this fiscal year and the year that starts on July 1.

But despite its miniscule impact on the problem, it’s absolutely the right thing to do. Lawmakers who have the urge to gripe about it are hereby advised to keep their yaps shut or risk being revealed as completely tone-deaf and politically stupid. Assemblymembers Gil Cedillo and Norma Torres, you are perilously close.

We should be used to humongous budget deficits by now. According to the Sacramento Bee, “over the past five years, the budget deficit projected in May for the coming year has averaged $18.2 billion.” The 2008-09 budget was roughly $103 billion; in January, Brown proposed an approximately $92-billion spending plan.

Throughout the economic freefall of the past four years, the governors and legislators have hacked billions of dollars from social services for the poor, the disabled, the sick and the elderly, severely compromising the social safety net. And they’ve slashed billions more from public schools, colleges and universities, threatening the state’s commitment to providing not only decent elementary and secondary education, but also post-secondary education that’s affordable for anyone who wants it. There’s really not much else that can be done as tax revenues have plummeted and Democrats in the Legislature haven’t been able to secure the few Republican votes necessary to raise taxes— or, as was the case last year, simply extend higher tax rates that were set to expire.

Brown’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year contains an additional $8.3 billion in cuts, including further reductions to Medi-Cal, CalWORKS (welfare), in-home care for low-income elderly and disabled citizens, child care and financial aid for low-income college students. More than $6 billion in additional cuts to schools, colleges and universities will be triggered automatically if voters reject a ballot measure in November that would raise $5.9 billion by increasing the state sales tax by a quartercent and raising income taxes on high earners.

The sales tax on purchased goods is regressive, impacting lower-income folks disproportionately, and relying heavily on income taxes is widely viewed as a major contributor to the state’s wildly fluctuating revenue base as California enjoys booms and endures busts. But despite repeated calls for overhauling the tax code and broadening the tax base (to include taxes on more services, for example), no such major shifting is expected any time soon. (We also don’t hold much hope for a split-roll propertytax overhaul that would retain the benefits of Prop.

That’s why we’ll be begging our readers to vote yes on Brown’s tax initiative. Otherwise, the crisis in public-school funding will worsen and we’ll travel further into a new reality in which a college education is accessible only to upper-income families.

In the abstract, California voters tend to reflexively reject pleas for additional personal financial sacrifice, but in opinion polls, they typically recoil when presented with particular cuts to education and social services. That’s why we remain hopeful that the state’s opinion elite—the media and civic leadership—will find a way to clearly articulate what’s at stake and a light will go on above the collective head of the electorate: Until the economy rebounds (eventually will happen) and elected officials muster the political will to fix the tax code (probably will never happen), we have to demand money from the people who have it.

Call it class warfare, wealth redistribution, penalizing success, whatever—the alternative, with less education, sicker people and higher crime, is a society getting closer and closer to chaos on the expanding lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

Yes, cut elected officials’ pay. Sure, cut state workers’ pay. By all means, reduce retirement benefits for public employees. But despite the rhetoric, that ain’t gonna solve the crisis. It’s much bigger than that.

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