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Archive for 2011



Taxes and Taxidermists: Your Money At Work

Friday, January 21st, 2011

A Google search of the words “taxes” and “quotations” yields 2.3 million results, and a wide-ranging, scrupulously sketchy scientific survey shows that 95% of them fall into one of two categories: 1) traditional, if tired, sentiments of the garden variety kvetching and caterwauling mode; 2) traditional, if tired, cheap one-liners, some of which still retain their zip.

“Taxes grow without rain,” goes the Jewish proverb, which set the template for several centuries worth of bellyaching jokes by public wits, from Mark Twain (“What is the difference between a taxidermist and a tax collector?  The taxidermist takes only your skin”) to Will Rogers (“Alexander Hamilton started the U.S. Treasury with nothing and that was the closest our country has ever been to being even”) and the late, great Arthur Godfrey (“I am proud to be paying taxes in the United States. The only thing is, I could be just as proud for half of the money”).

Digging deeper into this trove of popular wisdom, however, intrepid Calbuzz researchers also discovered a handful of famous comments that posit a contrary, and now quaint, community-minded notion:

“Taxes, after all, are dues that we pay for the privileges of membership in an organized society,” said Franklin Roosevelt, a belief concisely seconded by Oliver Wendell Holmes – “I like to pay taxes – with them I buy civilization” –and thirded much more loquaciously (quite naturally, since he was French) the 18th century economist and statesman Turgot: “The expenses of government, having for their object the interest of all, should be borne by everyone, and the more a man enjoys the advantages of society, the more he ought to hold himself honored in contributing to those expenses.”

All this comes to mind as new/old Gov. Jerry Brown has stirred up a very basic, and crucially important, statewide public policy debate, namely: exactly what kind of government do Californians want and expect, and exactly how much are they willing to pay for it?

Behind all the in-the-weeds arguments about IHSS caregiver rates, CSU per-unit fees and gas tax swap extension legislation lurks the fundamental contradiction, disclosed in countless opinion surveys, that Golden State residents demand and desire a deep level of public services, while fiercely rejecting the laws of arithmetic requiring them to dig deep to finance them.

Argumentum ad populum.

As Tom Meyer illustrates today, the good citizens of Arizona have recently endured a pragmatic and painful lesson in the consequences of having a raging psychotic walking freely in their midst, not to mention brazenly buying high-powered weapons.

As recriminations and debate about who is at fault for the horror and slaughter inflicted on innocent families by Jared Loughener – Rush Limbaugh! Karl Marx! Bad parents! – taxpayer-funded government services (the kind no doubt administered by lazy, loafing bureaucrats), which once might have responded to the clear, numerous and public warning signs that the killer was mentally melting down, are scarce and getting scarcer.

“It’s a perfect storm here in Arizona,” Matt Heinz, a Tucson physician, state legislator and friend of the gravely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, told the WashPost.  “Services are being slashed and burned. Potentially in the next few months we’ll be releasing thousands of folks from their relative stability. Our community resources are strapped beyond belief. And the state, which you’d think would be the safety net – we’ve lit the net on fire.”

Taxidermists, indeed.

You, too, can win big prizes: Issue driven and solution oriented, Calbuzz always aims to do our part. So today we’re presenting the first of what we hope is a series of innovative ideas from you, Our Loyal Readers, to help ease California’s fiscal woes.

Got an original idea for cutting state expenses or raising revenues? Email it to calbuzzer@gmail.com and win two – count ‘em, two! – free Calbuzz buttons with our famous redheaded-guy-with-his-finger-in-the-socket logo.

Our first Big Idea from Capitol employee Sarah Weaver:

I work a few floors above where former GAS had his smoking tent.  Now that it’s gone, I respectfully suggest that GJB should put a Zen garden down there.  The Astroturf looks weird, and I think we’d all be entertained watching him draw lines in the sand.

Entertained, hell. Let’s charge admission and rake in big bucks for the general fund!

Top honors for Sacramento scribblers: Sacbee’s Kevin Yamamura, whose daily budget coverage is a must-read, offers a good look at how some special interests are still doing well…The hypocrisy-puncturing Dan Morain calls out lawmakers who constantly bray about cutting taxes but never stop shoveling it into their pie holes with both hands while feeding at the public trough (Warning: contains large dosage of Actual Reporting)…Nice piece by Cap Weekly’s John Howard on how the Silver Fox is changing Capitol  atmospherics…Timm Herdt provides all you need to know to follow the brain-numbing debate about de-funding redevelopment agencies…Last word on the importance, or lack of same, to the Arizona massacre of Palin-style face-ripping political speech goes to Frank Rich …When nothing else will do but a good reader on the history of U.S. adventurism in Africa: Adam Hochschild on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba.

No F*&%ing Way! That’s the title and the point in a sharp new ad about the GOP attack on health care by Move On. Might not be a big hit in the heartland, but then again, maybe it strikes a chord.

Dr. H. Secret Decoder Ring Memo to Flash: Some free management advice:  Never contract out your wet work - always do it yourself. “Bet you won’t say that to my face!” Really? Seriously? Where do you find these guys – Miss Joslin’s Ding Dong School? Next up: “Wah! He hit me!”

Calbuzz picks: Steelers and Packers (pained as we are — Buckeyes — to pick either of these evil empires).

Calbuzz Democracy vs. Flashreport Feudalism

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

The other morning, there was an intriguing headline slapped over a story on Flashreport, the conservative web site run by our favorite knuckle-dragging blogger and Republican operative, Jon Fleischman.

The actual article, from Sign On San Diego, was an interesting yarn about Arnold Schwarznegger’s utter failure to abolish a host of government commissions, despite famously boasting that he would “blow up boxes” within state government.

The bright red overline with which Fleischman festooned the piece, however, had nothing directly to do with its content but everything to do with his latest hobbyhorse, the GOP effort to prevent voters from getting to decide for themselves whether to back Jerry Brown’s tax plan to help balance the budget:

“Yet another reasons (sic) why we shouldn’t put taxes on the ballot,” his hed read.

Our key question about this: Huh?

The Flash’s editorial attempt to jam a square peg in a round hole (or, as we inelegantly used to say on the city desk, to stuff three pounds of shit in a two-pound bag) reflects an anxious political calculation by right-wing legislators and allied anti-tax, anti-government crusaders that they don’t dare allow a popular vote to determine whether Brown’s half-cuts, half-taxes deficit plan should be implemented.

Seemingly fearful that their arguments on the merits would not prevail in a statewide election test, they instead reserve to themselves the right to forbid ordinary people from having a decisive say about a momentous policy question that will shape the future of California.

Like a small band of feudal lords, they seek to dictate to the vassals and serfs what the shape and size of the state’s political and economic landscape shall be, placing their highest priority not on the will of the people, but on their own power, exercised through the tyranny of a tiny minority.

No Relation to Grover Norquist

In this, these tinhorn barons and viscounts are assisted by yeomen and henchmen like Fleischman* and the Washington-based nihilist Grover (“drown it in the bathtub”) Norquist, who darkly threaten with political annihilation any independent-minded Republican who might be inclined to provide Brown one of the handful of votes he needs to put his crucial tax proposal on the June ballot.**

It must be noted that a few thoughtful Republicans, represented by the erudite Tony Quinn, applaud the notion of an election on the budget issue as a bracing and clarifying exercise in direct democracy.

But as we’ve pointed out here and here, the stubborn unwillingness of the Armies of Howard to hear the people’s voice on Brown’s proposal truly is confounding; after all, the Coupal-Fleischman-Fox cabal never tires of hectoring us about their categorical certainty that all right-thinking people hate all taxes always, period, paragraph, end of story.

If that’s true, then why miss the chance to prove it, once and for all, and deal Brown and his allies an early, crushing defeat that will not only inflict a severe blow on his governorship but also mortally wound the public education system, medical and social services they apparently despise? ***

The answer, of course, is that Brown’s tax measure, which calls for extending for five years $12 billion in temporary higher tax rates passed two years ago, is only one piece, albeit a determinative one, of a more complicated fiscal prescription.

It also includes a dramatic realignment plan for state and local governments, as well as $12 billion in cuts that not even his testosterone-soaked Republican predecessor had the cojones to propose  - a total package that the new/old governor might actually have the political skill to explain effectively to voters, despite its enormous complexity. As we argued earlier:

Local officials with the power to determine levels of service — based on local support – will finally, and properly, have the tools to make some tough decisions about local programs and pensions – while also facing the up-close-and-personal political consequences of making them.

And when the drown-the-baby-in-the-bathtub anti-government types scream about all this, proponents can reply: We’re for democracy and for empowering local government. It’s the other guys who are for keeping all the power up in Sacramento and in smoke-filled back rooms where THEY have power. We want to return power to the people, to local communities, where you can keep an eye on how money is spent and for what.

No Relation to Grover Norquist

Beyond this scenario, scary to the Norquists of the world, whose personal livelihoods depend on convincing people that government never does anything good, lies the demonstrable fact that a large majority of Californians haven’t even noticed the allegedly ruinous tax increases they keep blathering about:

Interestingly, only 36% of voters – 30% of Democrats, 47% of Republicans and 21% of independents – were even aware that $8 billion in temporary tax increases were enacted in 2009. Nearly two thirds of the voters – 64% — did not know that taxes had been raised.

More: A solid majority of voters currently supports extending the taxes to avoid deeper budget cuts – although people also want to be convinced they’ll get good value for their money, precisely the assurance Brown stands prepared to try to deliver and demonstrate to them. To quote ourselves:

So there you have the battle lines: One side will argue that Brown’s plan isn’t a plan at all and that it will raise taxes to keep bloated government in Sacramento. The other side will argue that Brown and the Legislature have a plan and that they’re seeking a temporary extension of current taxes in order to streamline government in Sacramento.

It’s all about whose message is more compelling and believable, whose is better framed and delivered.

Bottom line: The no-tax amen corner over at Flashreport is just too chicken to have that argument. Cluck, cluck.

_________

*Steve Harmon did a terrific job  of undercutting Fleischman’s claim that his band of right-wingers effectively punished Republican office holders who voted for taxes the last time around.

** Quinn and Dan Walters both have posited possible alternative pathways to the ballot for Brown’s proposal.

*** Peter Schrag provides a factual look, complete with Actual Reporting, at what an all-cuts deficit plan would look like.

Looming Battle: ‘Extending’ vs. ‘Increasing’ Taxes

Monday, January 17th, 2011

As we suggested Friday, one of the reasons the Howard Jarvis fetishists, union bashers and gold standard crackpots are threatening to strangle any Republican legislator who helps Gov. Jerry Brown get an extension of income, sales and vehicle taxes onto the June ballot is likely their fear that California voters just might agree to extend those taxes rather than cut further into schools, parks, prisons, public safety and health care.

And it turns out they have good reason to be afraid: a survey done by pollster Jim Moore for the California Issues Forum has found that “to avoid 20-25% deeper state budget cuts” 58% of California voters – including nearly four in 10 Republicans – would indeed support extending those taxes. And that’s after they’re spelled out as a 1-cent increase in the state sales tax, a 1% increase in state income taxes, a 1% increase in the vehicle license fee.

According to Moore’s survey of 1,000 likely voters, 74% of Democrats, 57% of independents and 37% of Republicans would support the tax extensions. (The survey asked about a four-year extension, but it’s likely that asking about a five-year extension as Brown is seeking would have made little difference.)

Interestingly, only 36% of voters – 30% of Democrats, 47% of Republicans and 21% of independents – were even aware that $8 billion in temporary tax increases were enacted in 2009. Nearly two thirds of the voters – 64% — did not know that taxes had been raised.

Even after they were told about those increases, only 14% of voters said they’d been hurt by them a great deal, while 29% said they were hurt somewhat and 44% said they were hurt very little. Another 13% had no opinion.

The underlying problem for Brown, the Democrats and others who want to solve the state’s $28 billion budget deficit with a mix of taxes and cuts, however, is this: 65% of California voters do not trust state government to spend tax money wisely. That includes 82% of Republicans, 74% of independents and even 49% of the Democrats.

On average, voters think about half the money spent by state government – 48% — is wasted. And six in 10 voters – 72% of Republicans, 65% if independents and 51% of Democrats – think the state’s budget problems result from poor planning, while only 16% blame the national economic recession.

Unless voters are convinced that Sacramento has a plan to spend money more wisely, this fundamental concern is likely to kill any chance of extending those tax increases. Brown’s straight-forward, no-bullshit, tough-love talk about the budget — particularly his proposal to shift billions in tax money and programs from the state to local government — is exactly what voters need to hear if there’s any hope of getting them to go along with extending the 2009 tax increases.

Voters – despite what some liberal pie-in-the-sky dreamers imagine – oppose “increasing taxes to help balance the state budget” 59-37%. But they support “temporarily increasing taxes to help balance the budget” by 53-44%.  Which is why the battle over maintaining  the 2009 tax increases will be a fight about how the issue is framed: as a tax increase (as the Jarvis hardliners will argue) and as a temporary extension (as the Silver Fox et. al. will contend).

Mostly, this will be a battle for the center of the political spectrum – the Democratic and Republican swing voters and the independents – who do not always support the Democratic or Republican candidate or argument.

Moore, the only pollster we know who creates a demographic of swing voters, has found that the Democratic base comprises 38% of the voters while the Republican base accounts for 28%. That leaves 19% as Democratic swing voters and 15% as Republican swing voters.

How does this affect political messaging and outcomes? Consider this question Moore asked: “Republicans often criticize Democrats for being too willing to raise taxes and unwilling to cut spending for ineffective government programs. In your opinion, is this a valid criticism of Democrats?

Overall, 58% of likely votes said it’s a valid criticism and 37% said it was not. But how does that break down? Among Democratic base voters 62% said it is not a valid criticism versus 33% who agreed it is. But 54% of Democratic swing voters, 74% of Republican swing voters and 90% of the Republican base accepted that criticism of Democrats.

By the same token, Moore also asked: “Democrats often criticize Republicans for giving tax breaks to big business and being intolerant of others’ political views. In your opinion, is this a valid criticism of Republicans?”

By 64-33% voters agree with that critique, including 83% of the Democratic base, 83% of the Democratic swing voters, 50% of the Republican swing voters but just 29% of the Republican base voters.

Or consider that by 57-43%, voters say they’d prefer “less government and lower taxes” over “slightly higher taxes for better government services.”  That formula is a winner among 87% of the Republican base voters, 77% of the Republican swing voters and 51% of the Democratic swing voters. Only Democratic base voters would prefer higher taxes and better government services by 70-30%

But when the issue is framed as “less government and lower taxes” versus “better value for the taxes you currently pay,” voters prefer better value by 72-18% That includes 91% of the Democratic base, 78% of the Democratic swing voters and 52% of the Republican swing voters. Only Republican base voters prefer lower taxes and less government and only by 53-47%.

So there you have the battle lines: One side will argue that Brown’s plan isn’t a plan at all and that it will raise taxes to keep bloated government in Sacramento. The other side will argue that Brown and the Legislature have a plan and that they’re seeking a temporary extension of current taxes in order to streamline government in Sacramento.

It’s all about whose message is more compelling and believable, whose is better framed and delivered. But first, Brown and the Legislature must come to terms on budget cuts and a plan to extricate California from the mess left behind by former Govs. Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unless they can do that, the only choice will be further budget cuts.

JMM Research surveyed 1,000 likely California voters by land line and cell phone Nov. 17-Dec. 4. The expected margin of error for the survey is +/- 2.9% at the 95% confidence level.