California Impasse

In another totally indefensible act designed to deny access to prosperity to more Californians, the UC Regents today voted to increase student fees by 8%. The Regents predictably claimed they had no alternative.

We know there are alternatives – raising taxes in order to provide for the public services that guarantee prosperity – but while those exist in theory, the case has simply not been made persistently and effectively to Californians in support of it. The Two Santa Claus Theory remains strong – that voters can have both low taxes AND quality public services.

That lesson was driven home with brutal clarity at the November 2 election. The tax increase measures on the ballot – Prop 21 and Prop 24 – failed, and we lost Prop 26 as well, which is another expression of anti-tax sentiment.

Two recent polls help explore what is going on here – showing that conservative arguments that we don’t have to pay to maintain our society, that we can all just freeload indefinitely, have made deep inroads into the public consciousness. At the same time, the progressive argument that public services are important and worth supporting is still widely supported. Californians are basically at an impasse, with progressives needing to find a way to make a clear and consistent argument for new revenues – and then organize to get the public to support it.

The LA Times/USC Poll makes this clear:

Californians object to increasing taxes in order to pare the state’s massive budget deficit, and instead favor closing the breach through spending cuts. But they oppose cuts-and even prefer more spending-on programs that make up 85% of the state’s general fund obligations, a new Los Angeles Times/USC Poll has found.

That paradox rests on Californians’ firm belief that the state’s deficit-estimated last week at nearly $25 billion over the next 18 months-can be squared through trimming waste and inefficiencies rather than cutting the programs they hold dear. Despite tens of billions that have been cut from the state budget in recent years, just a quarter of Californians believed that state services would have to be curtailed to close the deficit.

While cuts to prisons were widely popular (71% backed it), cuts to health care and education were unpopular (only about 36% supported those) with majorities wanting to either maintain or increase the funding.

PPIC found similar results on the specific issue of higher education – with residents evenly split (49-49) on whether to raise taxes to invest in public colleges and universities.

One reaction to this is to simply blame the public – they’re either confused, foolish, stupid, greedy, or some combination of those factors.

I don’t think that’s useful – and I don’t think it’s correct. Over the last 30 years, I cannot remember a time where there was a persistent and high-profile effort made by Democrats, or any one else, to convince Californians that our state and our future is worth paying for. Instead, Democratic elected officials and most major center-left organizations have spent the post-1978 years running about as far away as they could from being spun as anything resembling “tax supporters.” So it should be little wonder that conservative anti-tax messaging has found traction – when you cede the field, the other side usually makes gains.

At the same time, we shouldn’t be too mopey about these results. Californians clearly understand that schools, health care, and infrastructure are very important to them, that government should provide these things, and that they don’t get enough funding. As a progressive activist, I see that as a very favorable situation in which to start making the argument for fair revenue solutions.

How we do that is crucial. Another lesser known, but equally important aspect of right-wing messaging success has been their claim that in a recession, everyone must spend less. That’s counter-intuitive and counter-cyclical – in short, it’s Hooverism – but it sounds like “common sense” partly because nobody has yet pushed back.

Such a coordinated messaging effort won’t work without an on-the-ground organizing plan. Groups like the California Alliance, the state’s labor movement, the Courage Campaign, and others are committed to doing that. It’s not going to produce results overnight. But it could also produce results quicker than we think, given that our position isn’t that bad.

Consider also that the November 2010 electorate, while delivering victories for the Democratic ticket, was much less progressive than the November 2008 electorate. A coherent messaging AND organizing project could just produce some winning ballot initiatives at the November 2012 ballot. Whether California can wait that long is another question entirely – but as I look at these polls, I see both an impasse and an opportunity.

California’s glass is half full, but the corporations and the rich are thirstily eyeing what remains. Let’s make sure we take more from them than they take from us.

13 thoughts on “California Impasse”

  1.   One solution is to pass a budget that “lives within our means” this summer.  This implies that the school year will

    be cut by 10-15 days, various state subsidies to counties will be eliminated, state parks closed, etc.

     This will be combined with a special election on an initiative that will restore sufficient money to fund

    a reasonable budget (probably around $10 billion/year).  This initiative would have to be qualified by progressive/labor groups, and should only include tax increases on the top 1% of taxpayers (increases in income taxes and maybe split roll).  Then voters get a choice.

  2. In addition to restoring some respect to public investment, I think it helps to remind people someone stole their parks and school bands.

    It’s true that the rich and corporations are undertaxed, but people don’t want to hear that.

    I think people do respond well to an account of the slick moves over the last thirty  years.  Who paid what and what did they get?  We all get that plot.  

  3. And the commenters have strategies/framing elements. Really makes a good read.

    I’m hopeful but worried, as anti-Government sentiment could not be higher even here in Los Angeles. I walk to the coffee shop and talking about Unions is akin to talking about the mob.

    The follow-the-money campaign is great!

  4. I remember a California even better than the one eMeg moved to.  I’ve asked some who were grownups at the time how bad taxes really were.  The take seems to be that St. Ronnie left a regressive mess and property taxes were rising – the overall tax rate was not significantly higher than it is now, but we were an early petri dish for the tactics you see now in Washington.

    Anyway, we paid a bit more, but we got something for our money:

    – World-class education system, virtually free, so that that young people didn’t start their working careers under a mountain of debt, and their parents were able to save for retirement instead of hocking their homes.

    – We took care of our physically and mentally disabled, instead of stepping over them on the sidewalk and making laws to remove even that inconvenience

    – We paved our roads

    – We had Parks & Rec departments that supported various programs to keep kids busy and out from in front of their TVs as well as off the streets.

    I’m sure we could come up with more.

  5. Personally, I think that a big part of what we have to do is think about ways to get around what I call the “Government/Program Blindspot” in which people completely disassociate between the things that make up government (which they like) and the concept government (which they see as a kind of black hole of waste, fraud, and abuse that sucks in their tax dollars, full stop).

    Part of that is by linking taxation and spending directly. The idea being batted around about giving people a receipt for their taxes so that they see exactly what their taxes pay for is another good one.

    Short-term, I think we need to set up a state reserve bank to free us up on the revenue front and kick-start some job growth. 


  6. at UCLA have been tinkering with an idea of… wait for it… a ballot proposition to change how the UC Regents are appointed.  There are a number of issues there, from them getting 12-year terms, to absolutely no accountability to the students, faculty, and staff of the UCs, etc.

  7. You don’t get what you pay for from colleges nowadays, so the only people getting ripped off are the ones who can afford these UCs. 🙂  

  8. we have to have answers to the questions people have – not instead of a narrative, but to back it up. as i asked a few days ago, why have fees at UC increased 500% since Brown was first elected? is it all really only burden-shifting? has the cost of educating the average UC student increased that much? why? i think one potential problem there is that there are people on our side who might have vested interests in the answers to some of those questions. have the student groups done some of this research already?

    i do think you’re right, that we need a coherent story, and we need to tell it all over the place. we need to look at basic premises: what government is, why it’s not the same as a business, what we put into it and what we get out of it. we may not get much money out of Brown, but i think we might get interest from him on a story about public service and the public good.

  9. Some years ago, I went to hear Jackie Speir speak when she was running for Lt. Governor. She made the comment that spending for colleges and prisons have essentially traded places in the California budget. I believe that trend has continued since then. She then went on to say that the effect on our economy, our state, and our population has been a disaster on many levels. She was so right.

    I went to UCLA in 1968. Tuition was $110 a quarter. Really, it was. This presented opportunities to so many people. It fueled growth in the state economy as research and education drove innovation, and an educated populace attracted employers.

    However, as we’ve privatized prisons, those private companies have pushed for ever-more draconian laws. They’ve fueled public fears about crime. And no amount of statistics to the contrary makes it safe for a politician or candidate to contest this corporate-funded fear.

    The results have been just as dramatic. Lives and families are ruined. Young people who could have become productive members of society are not saved or rehabilitated. They are stunted and forever stigmatized. And it actually costs taxpayers more to do this to them than it would have to provide them with a good education.

    Years ago I edited a magazine targeted to the law-enforcement community. One of my jobs was to do a monthly interview. I talked to police chiefs, public defenders, county sheriffs, and more. I expected a lot of the tough talk I was used to from politicians. But one county sheriff said exactly what rep. Speir did. He said it would save money to prevent crime by making sure at-risk teens graduate from school, by providing job training, and by fully funding social services. He claimed that would be less expensive than funding more law enforcement and jails. Plus, he said it would save a lot of ruined lives–not just the victims, but their families, the perpetrator, and their families. To my surprise, virtually everybody I interviewed agreed with him.

    California needs to get our priorities straight. We need to look at what we’re getting for our investments. And we need to listen to the professionals instead of the corporate flacks.

    It really is about time.

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