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Jonathan Kraut: Invest in ability, not in ideology

Posted: April 6, 2009 11:28 p.m.
Updated: April 7, 2009 4:55 a.m.
While most Californians are focused on trying to emerge from very challenging economic times, and most Californians are looking for ways to rescue government operations through innovation, expense reductions and new ideas, California Republican legislators are still entrenched in ideological warfare.

On March 29, The Signal article by our very own Assemblyman Smyth used every ounce of his intellect to tell us what we already know. He wrote that "we cannot tax ourselves out of our fiscal predicament" and that he knows how tough economic times have created a lot of suffering.

It took Smyth 455 words to state the obvious and to offer no new ideas.

At least Smyth clearly has grasp of at least 50 percent of the problem when he writes, "The fiscal problem is a result of irresponsible spending ..."

Well, duh. The California budget went from $104.2 billion in 2003-2004 to $144.8 billion in 2007-2008. That's about a 40 percent increase in four years.

Dear Cameron, the other 50 percent of the solution is to move away from running government using outside funding in favor of self-funding measures that eliminate the need for taxes. I propose putting our resources to work and leveraging our economic cycles to significantly reduce the need to tax in the first place.

Obviously, even as Republican Party Chair for the Assembly, Smyth can't seem to generate enough trust and cooperation to influence the state's wild growth. Like a small group in the back of the stands always booing the home team, constant Republican discord has become just another patch of white noise in the distance that has no value and contributes to no solutions.

Smyth continues with "raising taxes during tough economic times was a bad idea."

Well, since when is raising taxes ever a good idea? With a little creativity, there are unlimited solutions. Resolving the budget issue is a matter of ability, not ideology: opposing all fee increases and not having the political power to reduce expenses makes for a great campaign but still leaves the state government in shambles.

First, as much as we might like to "cut the budget," we have to recognize that throwing all the silverware at the political opposition leaves us no forks with which to eat. With a fork, one can manage, control and use a morsel effectively. With knives, one can only cut, slice and sever.

A big chunk of the state budget goes to pay off debt.

Proposal 1: Never spend more than 95 percent of the actual funds in good economic times and use the reserve in tougher times, but DO NOT BORROW. Eliminating bond debt will save billions.

Proposal 2: Use a flex tax on gasoline sales. The state tax is 19.2 cents per gallon. Raise the rate to 28 cents a gallon when core gas prices are less than $2.00 a gallon and use a sliding scale reducing tax rates to 12 cents a gallon when prices are more than $3.50 a gallon. We won't feel the tax bite while prices are low and get a break when gas prices are high, plus a few billion extra could be raised.

Proposal 3: Support "green" projects that offer work to the unemployed as part of a requirement to receive benefits. Everyone on unemployment can perform services like helping recycle rubber tires, collect paper and recycle paper goods, clean highways and so on, let's say for 12 hours a week. This proposal supports local industry, encourages folks to contribute, and I'll bet we can cut the number of those on unemployment.

Proposal 4: Pertaining to public safety, there is no statewide directory of felony convictions, and investigators performing background checks have to check county by county, possibly missing something along the way. California Department of Corrections maintains a database with all those who have served in state prison or are on or have been on probation.

Let licensed investigators, for a fee of let's say $4 search this existing database, and provide this service to law enforcement for free. There about 1,500 L.A. County criminal searches a day. My guess is there would be more than 10,000 statewide criminal index searches a day. We would all be safer and the database already exists.

Proposal 5: How about using vacant state grounds, where the lawn is already being watered, to grow orange, almond and other fruit-bearing trees? The goods produced would be for export only, putting people to work and bringing in new revenues.

Proposal 6: Another idea puts California in the fuel-refining business, serving all statewide and local government fleets at a direct cost, cutting a few more billion in tax burden, and also keeps local gas prices lower. This works well in conjunction with my Proposal 2.

Proposal 7: A last idea pertains to restoring state services that are self-funding. Two years ago, the state Department of Education stopped issuing degree-granting status and halted the opening of new adult institutions because the staff was moved to fill other state jobs. These programs were funded entirely by licensing fees and not by taxes. Restoring these programs not only allows for expanding opportunities for our workforce through education, but also brings staff back from tax funded positions to license fee-funded jobs. This pays for state employees with user fees and not with general taxes, lowering our tax burden overall.

How many more ideas are out there?

So while Assemblyman Smyth proclaims, "If there is a silver lining to this, it's the apparent lack of creativity among liberal, tax-and-spend legislators," the real message here is that there is no silver lining to clouding issues with blame when the same energy could be applied to solutions.

Jonathan Kraut is a Fair Oaks Ranch resident and serves in the Democratic Party of the SCV, on the SCV Human Relations Forum, and SCV Interfaith Council. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal or other organizations. "Democratic Voices" appears Tuesdays in The Signal and rotates among local Democratic writers.


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