Paying the piper

When Arnold Schwarzenegger was running for governor and promising to rescind the hike in the vehicle license fee (VLF), it was pointed out to voters over and over again that the $4.2 billion the car tax would generate this year was sorely needed by local governments for such services as police and fire protection. Despite these warnings, voters elected Schwarzenegger and immediately got what they desired: a rollback of the hike.

With Schwarzenegger’s failure last week to convince the Legislature to put a $15 million bond measure on the March ballot, however, it now seems clear that the governor is not going to be able to fulfill, at least for a while, his promise to backfill cities and counties for the $4.2 billion. The money simply doesn’t exist.

As a result, local governments are going to have to tighten their belts by several notches. Already in Chico, City Manager Tom Lando has asked department heads to cut spending by 5 percent, and further cutbacks may be necessary. The loss to Butte County will be far worse: as much as one-fifth of its revenue.

If voters thought the money was going to come out of the state’s general fund, they were mistaken. The governor could shut down all of the University of California campuses or all of the Superior Courts and prisons in the state and still not save that much money. Besides, why shouldn’t local governments bear the brunt of the tax cut? They’re the ones closest to the voters, and voters were told that the car tax revenues went to cities and counties. We made our choice. Now we’re going to have to live with it.