Think Long Comes Up Short

The following first appeared in City Journal California.

FEB. 2, 2012

By STEVEN GREENHUT

California’s ongoing budgetary and political dysfunction has spawned a host of reformers backed by wealthy donors. The latest scheme, released with much fanfare in late November, is a report produced by the Think Long Committee for California and funded by billionaire Nicolas Berggruen. It’s called “A Blueprint to Renew California,” and it leaves much to be desired.

Most of Think Long’s proposals—the creation of a “citizens’ accountability committee,” additional spending on infrastructure and education, streamlining the environmental-permitting process—are window dressing for the main one: a $10 billion tax increase, imposed through a ballot initiative that would go before voters in 2012. And then, after it gets voters to sign off on the tax hike, the committee (like many in California’s majority party) wants to rein in the voter-initiative process. Berggruen and Think Long believe that the key to renewing California is to raise taxes on almost all Californians. Their plan would make the state’s tax code less progressive by trimming the corporate tax rate and imposing a new sales tax on services. The goal: to provide still more revenue to a state government that’s already bloated and wasteful.

Conventional Thinking

Think Long released its utterly conventional recommendations with a burst of self-congratulation: “At a time when political leaders in both Sacramento and Washington seem hopelessly mired in gridlock, the committee has shown that difficult bipartisan compromise can be reached if politics is set aside and the public interest is put first.” These words might be more persuasive if Think Long weren’t composed of so many politicians who wielded power during the period when California’s budgetary problems became unmanageable. The committee’s members include former governor Gray Davis, bounced from office in the 2003 recall election; former assembly speakers Bob Hertzberg of Los Angeles and Willie Brown of San Francisco; and former state supreme court chief justice Ron George. Other advisors include former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, current lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom, and Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Most of these are poster children for what’s wrong with California; they are an unlikely group of saviors.

The report ignores the Golden State’s real problems: excessive government spending and dominance by public-sector unions and other special interests. The closest that Think Long comes to acknowledging them is three perfunctory paragraphs at the report’s end, which cite the pension crisis crushing municipal governments and offer this solution: “We recommend that the governor, legislature and local government officials make it the highest priority to work with public employee unions to find ways to address the long-term costs of pensions and the unfunded liabilities that have already been built up.” That’s as far as it goes.

Prison Costs

Nothing in the report comes close to articulating major reforms that would help the state stretch its dollars. For instance, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office recently reported that the cost of incarcerating inmates in California has more than doubled over the past decade, the result not only of court decisions regarding inmates’ health care but also of escalating compensation costs for correctional officers. A braver committee would have considered prison privatization or constraining the influence of the noxious California Correctional Peace Officers’ Association, which resists even modest reforms and holds outsize influence over both parties.

Even soft-pedaling, Think Long provoked the ire of the California Teachers Association. The CTA resents the committee’s proposal to junk Proposition 98—which directs 40 percent of the state’s budget to education from kindergarten through community college—even though the report goes on to propose an extra $5 billion for the schools from other sources.

Every would-be reformer knows that something is wrong with California’s budget and political process. But most have tended to be left of center and have offered ceremonial, symbolic reforms that don’t get to the heart of the state’s problems. Think Long is the latest example, and its “blueprint,” like the work of its many predecessors, is likely to be soon forgotten.

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  1. Rex The Wonder Dog!
    Rex The Wonder Dog! 2 February, 2012, 10:08

    It’s called “A Blueprint to Renew California,” and it leaves much to be desired.

    It should be called “A Blueprint To Tax The Poor And Middle Class To Death”. Because that is all this so called blueprint is, a huge expansion of the sales tax to include services and no attempt to stop gov spending on excessive salary and benefits.

    Reply this comment
  2. Barb
    Barb 2 February, 2012, 10:37

    A better title for reform would be ”Vote fiscal conservative policy to renew California”!

    Reply this comment
  3. Rex The Wonder Dog!
    Rex The Wonder Dog! 2 February, 2012, 14:33

    A better title for reform would be ”Vote fiscal conservative policy to renew California”!

    NO one in gov or trying to get elected will be fiscally responsible. Look at Nutmeg, she exempted police from pension reform for their backing. The system is broken.

    Reply this comment
  4. David H
    David H 2 February, 2012, 15:03

    I’m confused, the governor said that California is not in decline. Is it true that we now need a renewal if it has not declined? Our great educational system has made our kids more upright, responsible, and productive members of society? There is less crime and less need for prison systems as a result? Any man can find employment sufficient to meet his basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter? And if he so desires may prosper by applying himself to just about whatever occupation he is talented in? Maybe these societal benefits only now apply to government employees?

    Reply this comment
  5. queeg
    queeg 2 February, 2012, 17:37

    Throwing lots of time bombs in the air to overwhelm you….nothing Brown actually does…. it is talk….
    we live in bizarro!!!!

    Reply this comment
  6. Rex The Wonder Dog!
    Rex The Wonder Dog! 2 February, 2012, 23:42

    Here is what I think, most people think, of Browns plan and gov employees;

    http://www.dilbert.com/strips/comic/2012-02-03

    Reply this comment
  7. StevefromSacto
    StevefromSacto 3 February, 2012, 08:57

    This was too good not to share:

    “We don’t begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it. When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich. It’s because they understand that when I get a tax break I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit or somebody else has to make up the difference — like a senior on a fixed income, or a student trying to get through school, or a family trying to make ends meet.

    “That’s not right. Americans know that’s not right. They know that this generation’s success is only possible because past generations felt a responsibility to each other, and to the future of their country, and they know our way of life will only endure if we feel that same sense of shared responsibility.”

    Reply this comment
  8. Rex The Wonder Dog!
    Rex The Wonder Dog! 3 February, 2012, 09:56

    Steve, if only public employees could understand your comment, it applies to everyone EXCEPT public employees.

    Reply this comment
  9. nowsane
    nowsane 3 February, 2012, 14:51

    The Think Long report is seriously deficient in actual state budget cuts or reforms.
    As the editor noted, prison reform or privatization was not addressed at all, yet should be. Simply depending on that Gov. to solve the pension problems is wishful thinking. Aside from some minor changes to new state employees being hired, structurally, the long-term pension debacle appears almost as bad as that facing the USPS. Basically, in order to solve the state’s long-term spending addiction, it must choose what services are essential government services, and which can be outsourced to private industry. Education is one such area that could be privatized by offering school choice everywhere, and strengthening the use of the Internet for distance learning. Right now, the unions are stifling that opportunity. Furthermore, the state has far too many boards and committees for its own good. Combined with their total staffs, this price could be significant. Right now they are payoffs to prior legislators. One big area of concern is Moonbeam’s continued insistence on supporting AB32, the California Global Warming Act of 2006. Rather than allowing private industry to tap the 60+ percent of Shale Oil in California to generate income, he prefers to continue to strangle industry with the hopes that industry will stay put, in spite of this flurry of environmental regulations. If he did this (tap the oil), it would take a sizable chunk out of our employment rate, I believe, and go a long way towards helping solve the deficit.

    Reply this comment
  10. Rex The Wonder Dog!
    Rex The Wonder Dog! 3 February, 2012, 16:51

    If he did this (tap the oil), it would take a sizable chunk out of our employment rate, I believe, and go a long way towards helping solve the deficit.

    Sorry, no amount of money is going to solve our deficit problem b/c the spending will just keep going up. Until there is a hard cap on spending, aka employee costs, then nothing will change no matter how much income/revenue is produced.

    Reply this comment
  11. Ron Kilmartin
    Ron Kilmartin 3 February, 2012, 22:32

    Billionaires want a 10-billion dollar tax on Californians? Get in line fellas, and come back in 2025, next generation, when hopefully your kids grow up and can afford your brainy ideas. Or better yet, just get 9 of your friends together and voila! you have $10 billion and you can lay off us taxpayers.

    By the way how many of your billionaire club people are also members of the green fleecer battalion? If any, haven’t you fleeced Californians enough with defeat of Prop 23?

    Reply this comment
  12. queeg
    queeg 4 February, 2012, 08:49

    Lets all put on sack cloth and bow to the Demospenders..

    What a crock….drive…turn the lights on…barbecue..

    Reply this comment
  13. stevefromsacto
    stevefromsacto 6 February, 2012, 12:46

    Rex, you are absolutely fixated (not to mention delusional) about everything being the fault of public employees. They (remember, I am NOT a public employee) are Americans and taxpayers and church-goers just like you. And they fully understand and believe the quote about shared sacrifice. Seems to be the only ones who do not believe it are the right-wingers on this blog.

    I had to laugh the other day when Ted Gaines, a legislator from El Dorado County, was weeping and wailing because some of the budget cuts affected his district. Gaines, of course, is a Republican who has voted 100 percent against any tax increases to help sustain public services.

    From now on, let’s make it a requirement that any legislator who votes for budget cuts and against tax increases will have cuts in public services affect his or her district first.

    Reply this comment
  14. Rex The Wonder Dog!
    Rex The Wonder Dog! 6 February, 2012, 18:14

    From now on, let’s make it a requirement that any legislator who votes for budget cuts and against tax increases will have cuts in public services affect his or her district first.

    Stevie-I have a much better idea, from now on lets not compensate GED educated gov dorks $200K-$350K per year for GED level jobs, like cop and firewhiner, that way we won’t go broke paying 50 times the market rate for work the private sector would do 50 times cheaper. Deal 🙂

    Reply this comment

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