Dear Governor, Straight Talk Please

Anyone not living under a rock these days is well aware of the financial straits facing state and local governments.  Teachers and public employees laid off or furloughed, fundamental government services such as health care, child care, senior services, veterans services, services for the poor and disabled, primary, secondary and higher education, parks, recreation, roads, you name it.  All have been eliminated or reduced to skeletal remains of their former selves.  And while blame for the current malaise may be laid at many a doorstep from Wall Street to the union halls, the response we increasingly hear from Sacramento is that more taxes is the answer.  Governor Jerry Brown is proposing yet another ballot initiative seeking to cajole the voters of California into approving more tax increases.  The Governor’s current effort is a reincarnation of past efforts and focuses on across the board sales tax increases as well as income tax increases on the so-called wealthy.  While the fairness of the current tax regime may no doubt be questioned, more troubling is the fear-inducing campaign coming from the Governor seeking to scare voters into approving his latest proposal.

“Hike taxes or cut schools” is the bold, front page headline announcing the Governor’s just released budget plan.  There can be no doubt that substantial reductions in education as well as other government services have been meted out the past couple years, but missing from the Governor’s message is that those reductions are merely the low-hanging fruit.  Ignored thus far in the Governor’s plan and the resulting media coverage, or given lip service only, are the crushing burdens placed on government finances by unfunded and overly generous public employee pensions or the wasteful redundancy of numerous boards and commissions serving largely as political patronage positions for termed out legislators.  By threatening further cuts to high-profile services such as education and parks, or to services for the poor and disabled, the Governor and the media in complicity seek to create a sense of fear through the use of false choices.

In order to avoid a confrontation with public employee unions upon whose support the Governor depends, or eliminating wasteful boards and commissions used to reward other supporters, the Governor instead presents us with the false choice: hike taxes or cut schools.  If only it was that simple.  Framing the issue is of course the first step in any political campaign and credit must be given to the Governor for reducing to five simple words a concept as involved and complicated as state finance.  And while many of us find such simplistic expressions insulting, it is a sad reality that most voters are disengaged from the political process and thereby influenced by such fear-inducing simplicity.  Rather than addressing real reform of our wasteful spending habits by acknowledging the finite amount of funding available for the provision of government services and establishing priorities as to what services we really want or need and the level to which we are willing to fund those services, we are instead presented with the false choice to hike taxes or cut schools.  The Governor and the media do us all a disservice when meaningful discussion of serious matters is supplanted with jingoistic expressions of simplicity and fear.  Such of course is the nature of politics and headline writing.  It is my wish for the new year that we rise above the rhetoric and false choices in order to confront the very real problems before us.

Daniel A. Drummond, Executive Director

Sonoma County Taxpayers’ Association

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