Sharing the budget blame

With the state Legislature locked in a seemingly hopeless budget negotiation impasse and local governments now facing the reality of cutting much-needed programs, the question becomes, who’s responsible for this mess?

Republicans blame the Democrats and the governor for their refusal to rein in spending. Democrats blame the Republicans for their absolute rejection of any tax increases.

Voters blame all three for their spending, unwillingness to increase revenues and dogged determination to stand their ground and not compromise away their political values. All true enough.

But with a projected $38 billion deficit, there is plenty of blame to go around, and the citizens must own up to their fair share. A June public opinion poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California shows that most voter-age adults (73 percent) agree that the budget deficit is a big problem. But fixing the problem isn’t so clear-cut.

Where should the Legislature make spending cuts? Californians oppose cuts to K-12 public schools (82 percent), health and human services (71 percent) or colleges and universities (69 percent). The only area open to cuts, in the opinion of 55 percent of those polled, would be prisons and corrections.

So, without wide-ranging cuts, the Legislature should raise taxes, right? Well, not exactly. Should we increase the top rate of the state income tax by 1 percent? Only 45 percent say “yes.” Increase the state sales tax? “No,” say 52 percent. Reinstate the vehicle license fee? Nope, say 58 percent. (This is already a done deal.) Only a tax increase on cigarettes gets the public’s nod (71 percent).

Further deepening the deficit, last year California voters passed five out of six statewide initiatives that lock in millions of dollars in spending. It was 1978’s Proposition 13, a voter-approved initiative, that dried up property-tax income, once the primary source for local-government funding. Now the state relies primarily on personal income tax, which is much more susceptible to wild and unpredictable fluctuations than are property taxes.

The boom of the late-'90s filled the government’s coffers and started the spending spree for programs that people wanted. When that economy went bust, so did a lot of incomes. But the expensive programs remain.

And, finally, we’ve elected legislators who’ve divvied up the state into safe Republican and Democratic political havens via the redistricting process. Their only fear of defeat at the polls comes during the primaries, when they might have to run against someone from their own party who is even more inflexibly ideological. And that, of course, means that there is no political profit in compromise when it comes to something like hammering out a budget.

They’re our representatives, and we’re the ones who want to preserve our programs and not raise taxes at the same time. Yes, there is plenty of blame to go around in this budget crisis, and we citizens should point fingers first at ourselves.