Californians put money-talk on hold until waste goes down and trust goes up

150 150 Jim Mayer

It is hard to talk about dysfunction in California government without talking about money.  And it is hard everywhere these days to talk about taxes.

So Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will be praised and pilloried for talking about Proposition 13. But hopefully he gets credit for the courage of his convictions – and hopefully people are willing to listen to all sides of a complicated and emotional issue.

Over the last three years, CA Forward has talked with thousands of Californians about all that ails our governance system – our bankrupt budget process and our gridlock-inducing electoral system.  We have a “citizens’ initiative” process that for the most part is only available to individuals and interest groups with money. We have a complex web of government agencies and programs that makes it impossible for the most skilled public managers to do the right thing at the right time – and makes it easier for the bad boys in Bell to go for years without getting caught.   And we have talked about money.

CA Forward prioritized citizen-based redistricting and top-two primaries. We developed a comprehensive, state-of-the-art budget process that would better manage the $120 billion the State will spend this year – yes, even in this trough of a nasty recession.  And we have developed a framework for restructuring the relationship among government agencies to make it easier for public employees to improve performance and for voters and taxpayers to hold public officials accountable for results.

And we have talked about money – about ways to reduce the volatility of tax revenue, whether to increase local control of the tax system, and even how to provide additional revenue as the economy grows.  We have asked people what they think, and here is what we have heard:

People are deeply divided about whether to raise taxes to plug the holes in public budgets.  Most “viable” proposals deal with taxing a minority of Californians. Even when a poll shows a flicker of agreement, political experts are quick to point out that majority support is easily extinguished by an opposition campaign. Why are they so confident?

Because we also have heard – consistently and repeatedly — that the vast majority of Californians believe a lot of taxpayer money is wasted.  They particularly distrust state lawmakers to spend money well.  And whether we ask or not, they say they are hurting financially and simply can’t afford it, even if they support the cause.

Finally, we have heard that there is a path forward.  A strong and diverse majority of Californians want public programs to work well.  They know education is important, even if they don’t have kids. They know infrastructure supports job growth, and vulnerable children and seniors need to be protected.

They are most willing to support increasing taxes if they are confident the money will be well spent on high priority items close to home.  Details matter and timing is essential.  But Californians are willing to have this conversation – if they believe elected leaders are willing to listen and do what it takes to earn their confidence.

Jim Mayer is executive director of California Forward


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