Outside editorial: Get real, governor: It's time to talk about California tax system

Posted: Monday, January 14, 2008

Big new bonds to plunge the state further into debt, killer cuts to schools that already struggle mightily to meet high demands, and new fees that don't help the budget overall are clearly not the way to close California's budget shortfall. If the plan the governor announced Thursday represents his best shot at keeping the state going, he hasn't learned much during his years in office. If it's a ploy to open a real conversation about the gap between what Californians want in services and what they're willing to pay for, we welcome it.

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Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger finds himself in much the same position as his predecessor, Gray Davis, at the point at which he was recalled. Davis aimed to boost revenue by bringing back the full car tax, which would have been available to the general budget. Schwarzenegger rolled into office largely on promises to repeal the tax.

Schwarzenegger had just spearheaded a successful initiative to expand after-school care while boasting that he could balance the budget simply by cutting all the waste in state bureaucracy. But he found the government wasn't as bloated as he'd expected. And now his hands are tied by the same kinds of initiatives he led - close to half a billion dollars a year is funneled into after-school programs instead of into schools.

Still, he clings to politics, dressing up taxes as fees and targeting them at areas he knows legislators will have a hard time resisting. The clearest example of that elision is his attempt to recast a tax as a firefighting fee. Substantively, he's on the mark: A fee to boost the state's power to fight wildfires in the hinterlands is both sensible and necessary. But it should be paid by the people who cost the state all that money - homeowners who buy on the edge of wilderness and then refuse to tax themselves to pay for their own fire departments. By not forcing builders and homeowners to face the real costs of building in the far reaches, the state would enable continued sprawl in areas where housing developments make no sense and would contribute to ever-rising firefighting costs. Moreover, revenue from that fee would not help close the state's budget shortfall.

Schwarzenegger's warnings of what awaits California without drastic action are, in some cases, equally illusory. Closure of some state parks might be a false economy altogether. There are dozens of ways for illicit visitors to enter Topanga State Park, for example. Unsupervised, they could cost the state far more in damage than it could save by closing the gates.

Schwarzenegger is right that this state faces difficult choices. He's wrong if he seriously thinks the way out of these difficulties is just closing popular parks, slashing education money and imposing limited fees. It is time for a civilized conversation about restructuring our tax system so we don't end up in this situation in the future. It's a dialogue - not a screaming match - that the governor needs to lead.

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