COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | THOMAS ELIAS

Ideology begets tax inequity, costs state billions

With 52 seats in the House of Representatives, soon to become 53, California ought to be the dominant force in Congress. After all, that's almost one-quarter what's needed to form a majority in the House, far more votes than any other state has ever had.

But California today is the victim of a huge tax inequity. Taxpayers here last year on average paid $864 more per person to the federal government than the state got back. That was a total $29.3 billion balance of payment deficit. Prospects look even worse for the new fiscal year that started this week.

The deficit is much more than the $24 billion state budget shortfall that now threatens many jobs and important services. Simple repayment of California's huge antiterror security costs -- exacerbated by the state's size and its key Pacific ports -- could cut the deficit by more than $5 billion. That would be $5 billion more for schools, roads, parks -- everything dear to Californians that's to be cut back in the new state budget. But it won't happen.

How can this befall the state with America's largest congressional delegation? What's wrong with all those House members?

In two words, geography and ideology.

While Texas lawmakers usually form a united front on anything affecting their state, as do those from Mississippi -- which gets the biggest return on its tax dollars -- hugely different ideologies make it virtually impossible to get all California's House members into the same room, let alone behind the same spending bills.

What besides state lines could possibly unite the likes of ultra-liberal Barbara Lee of Berkeley, the lone vote against giving President Bush war powers to retaliate for the events of last Sept. 11, and Republicans like Duncan Hunter and Duke Cunningham of San Diego County, usually on their party's far right wing?

Not water. Most Northern California politicians would be loath to do anything giving more river water to the thirsty cities and suburbs of Southern California. And most Southern California pols have little knowledge or concern for either the remaining wild rivers of the north or the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Military spending won't unite them either. California's defense industry has been cut by more than half over the last decade, and not just because of the many base closures. While a Democrat like Jane Harman from a beachside district in Los Angeles County often votes with Republicans on defense, especially aerospace, most of her fellow Democrats consistently vote to kill or reduce projects like the B-2 bomber, even though it is largely produced in California.

It's often the peaceniks vs. the war hawks inside the delegation, and the state is the loser as all remember their differences and later frequently oppose any kind of pork for the districts of those who opposed them.

Almost every California Democrat will vote for any kind of abortion funding or anti-AIDS spending. All but a few Republicans vote against.

If this delegation were united on anything, it could exert enormous influence, probably enough to overcome the "anywhere-but-California" bias that's long infected a Congress fearful of domination by the behemoth of the far West.

Unity could also overcome much of President Bush's apparent anti-California animus, which stems in part from the fact he didn't come close to carrying the state in 2000 and has questionable prospects here next time around.

But that needed unity never materializes. So California universities get fewer dollars per student in federal support than those of Iowa or Connecticut, with their much smaller congressional numbers. California gets less money per mile to maintain beaches and harbors than Florida or Louisiana. It gets fewer block-grant dollars to fix blighted inner cities than New York or Pennsylvania. It gets only 91 cents back for every federal gasoline tax dollar paid in, so roads become potholed. And on and on.

"We need more equity," rookie Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff of Pasadena told a reporter. "We're up against delegations like Texas and New York that speak with one voice on state issues."

But ideology prevents any such unity and has for decades. What's dear to the hearts of politicians in Orange County is often anathema on the North Coast or in the Central Valley or the San Francisco Peninsula. And vice versa.

Which means California will be a donor state for more decades to come unless voters press their House members to work together. Not very likely.


Elias is author of "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It," now available in an updated second edition. His email address is thomas.elias@sddt.com.

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