When You Hate Your Taxes but Can’t Name Your Legislator

Who do you think has more influence over the education, safety, health, welfare, transportation, justice, recreation and economic well-being of 40 million Californians? U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein or California State Senator Loni Hancock?

That’s easy: Loni Hancock. How can it be that someone so powerful is so unknown?

The answer is that few people pay attention to the elections that most affect their lives. In California and most states, those elections are to the state legislature.

This year, the 120 members of the California Assembly and Senate will levy $130 billion in taxes and fees, and direct the spending of more than $200 billion, including federal funds. They will pass legislation and issue regulations affecting the jobs, wages and economic prospects of millions of private-sector workers, and the health and safety of all residents. They determine the size of prison populations and the extent of social safety nets. They decide which parks and recreation sites can stay open, and oversee the quality of the state’s environment and infrastructure. They supervise the education of 9 million students.

Finally, they award billions of dollars in compensation, issue billions of dollars of debt in retirement promises, and select the members of state boards investing hundreds of billions of dollars set aside to protect future taxpayers from having to pay more to meet these promises.

Prisons First

Under the U.S. Constitution, state governments have primary responsibility for delivering domestic services. According to the Volcker-Ravitch Task Force on the State Budget Crisis, states and localities spend more than the federal government on the direct implementation of domestic policy.

Senator Hancock -- who represents Berkeley and surrounding areas -- voted along with a majority of her colleagues this year to, among other things, cut outlays for higher education, welfare, courts and parks while boosting spending on state employees. The net result: This year, California will spend more than twice as much on the compensation and benefits of just 67,000 corrections employees -- $6 billion -- as the state will allocate to the entire University of California system -- $2.5 billion -- consisting of 10 campuses educating more than 200,000 students, including the University of California, Berkeley, in her district. Because of cuts imposed by the state Senate, more than 70 state parks will close, tuition for college students will rise, welfare benefits will decline, wait times for court dates will increase and litigants will even have to pay for court reporters.

For Senator Hancock, this can’t be easy. What’s progressive about cutting education, courts, welfare and parks while boosting public-employee compensation? Or not reforming the 1970s sentencing law largely responsible for California’s excessively large prison population?

Both sides of California’s political aisle play the game of saying one thing but doing another. In 2010, then Republican State Senator Dennis Hollingsworth railed about the problem of growing pension costs but then voted against legislation that would have lowered them.

Yet in a single day the California Legislature could address most of the state’s main issues. For example, it could:

Rewrite the Uniform Determinate Sentencing Act, which raised the state’s prison population after it was signed into law in 1978.

Change the tax system from one dependent on capital-gains levies to a formula that taxes consumption, as a way to reduce the Wall Street effect on California’s boom-and-bust revenues.

Reform the public-employee benefits system that is cannibalizing funding for critical state and local services.

Changed Primaries

Because California requires a two-thirds vote to raise fees or taxes, a small number of legislators on the margin can have enormous influence whenever more revenue is requested.

For example, in February 2009, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger sought a tax increase and got enough legislators to agree, including a small number of Republicans who normally oppose tax increases. One of them, Abel Maldonado, wanted the voters to have a chance to approve a new primary system that would take power away from the extremists who at that time controlled primaries and, as a result, much of the state legislature. Though the rest of the legislature did not want that new primary system, Maldonado got his way, the tax increase passed, and the new primary system was approved by the voters.

Now that California has a new primary system and citizen- drawn (instead of gerrymandered) districts, the scarce resource now is good candidates -- Democrat, Republican or with no party preference.

Successful politicians can’t win without strong egos. But to govern for the benefit of their fellow citizens, they need to care about something greater than themselves and show courage in countering special interests. As those candidates emerge, let’s hope their fellow citizens know their names.

(David Crane, a former financial-services executive and a Democrat, is a lecturer at Stanford University and president of Govern for California, a nonpartisan group. He was an economic adviser to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: David Crane in San Francisco at davidgcrane@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.

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