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.