Recommendations are out from the Commission on the 21st Century Economy on how to fix California's broken system of revenue collection. Sadly, though not surprisingly, our elected leaders are lining up to declare the recommendations "dead on arrival."
"It's not cooked. It probably needs years of work," said state Treasurer Bill Lockyer.
"The chances of this getting approved, as is, are zero percent," added Assemblyman Chuck Devore. It would be nice if Mr. Devore had added some ideas of his own on how to fix the problem, but he didn't.
With all due respect to Mr. Lockyer, we don't have years to fix the problems. The state is in arguably its worst financial situation ever. Workers are being furloughed, our infrastructure is being neglected and services to our most needy are being cut. Despite all the cuts, the Legislature still found it necessary to increase the sales tax but our budget remains in a multi-billion dollar deficit. The time to act is now, but for people like Mr. Lockyer it is easier to criticize the ideas of others than it is to actually come up with ideas of your own and then provide the leadership needed to make them happen.
Taking my own cue, I will propose one simple idea that will improve our budget process:
Any future ballot initiative should be mandated to provide for a new dedicated revenue source to pay for the cost of the program being proposed.
No one is opposed to increasing our water supplies, modernizing our schools, repairing our roads or retrofitting our hospitals. In fact, we the people have approved tens of billions of dollars in bonds to support these and other worthwhile causes over just the last few election cycles. Unfortunately, we haven't approved any additional revenue to pay for any of them. The result is a legislature faced with an ever-shrinking amount of unallocated money that can be used for discretionary items such as police and fire protection.
If the public believes a new idea or a new program is worthy of support, then they should be required to also vote on a way to pay for it. Actually, this wouldn't be a bad rule to enforce on the Legislature, too.
There are many more ideas worth exploring. The Commission has proposed several worthwhile proposals, and it is essential that special-interest opposition to any one particular proposal does not derail the entire process. Seven-second sound bites are no longer acceptable, simply saying no to every new idea is not the answer, and maintaining the status quo is simply not an option.
When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger calls a special session of the Legislature to debate the Commission's proposals, state legislators should do their job and use this tool to fix the state's broken tax system and bring state government in line with the economy of the 21st Century.
Two final thoughts:
We will only have a system that works when our elected officials start caring more about the Legislature's role in California than they do about their own personal role in the Legislature.
Any system that makes it easier to vote for new spending than it is to vote for new revenue will always be dysfunctional.
Berg is executive manager of the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), San Diego chapter.