Prop. 31 would regionalize state revenue sharing

Aug. 30, 2012

By Wayne Lusvardi

Despite regionalization failing miserably in the European Union, California is proposing to adopt it as a tax-sharing policy for distributing state funds to local governments if voters approve Proposition 31 on the November ballot.

Prop. 31 is a combined new law and state constitutional amendment sponsored by the California Forward political action group.  Nicolas Berggruen, a European billionaire, is the biggest sponsor of California Forward with a $1 million donation to the pro-Prop. 31 Campaign.  Berggruen owns the IEC College of vocation schools in California and is a registered Democrat in Florida.  He founded the Council for the Future of Europe, which has proposed “fiscal federalism and coordinated economic policy” to rescue the European Union from its debts.

Regionalism Will SAP Revenues from Suburbs to Cities

Urbanologist Wendell Cox writes that “regionalism” is an emerging policy of the Obama administration, as described in Stanley Kurtz’s new book, “Spreading the Wealth: How Obama is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities.” Kurtz is a social anthropologist from Harvard.

Prop. 31 will not result in new regionalized governments. Rather, it will end up in what Cox calls “fiscal regionalism” run by a committee.  The tax-sharing facets of Prop. 31 are:

  1. “Granting counties, cities, and schools the authority to develop, through a public process, a Community Strategic Action Plan for advancing community priorities that they cannot achieve by themselves.”
  2. “Granting local governments that approve an Action Plan the ability to identify state statutes or regulations that impede progress and a process for crafting a local rule for achieving a state requirement.”
  3. “Providing some state funds as an incentive to local governments to develop Action Plans.”
  4. “Implement the budget reforms herein using existing resources currently dedicated to the budget processes of the State and its political subdivisions without significant additional funds. Further, establish the Performance and Accountability Trust Fund from existing tax bases and revenues. No provision herein shall require an increase in any taxes or modification of any tax rate or base.”

According to Cox, regionalization strategies are “aimed at transferring tax funding from suburban local governments to larger core area governments.”  The Prop. 31 version of regionalization would not amalgamate city, county, special district and school district governments. Nor would it create new taxes. But it could authorize the state to withhold or divert taxes from local governments unless those governments adopted a “Strategic Action Plan” to distribute the revenues from the suburbs to the large urban cities.

In essence, a Strategic Action Plan, or SAP for short, would sap the wealth out of suburbs. SAPS might also sap the bond ratings from suburban communities.

Governor Would Become “Emergency” Czar

Probably one of the most controversial provisions of Prop. 31 would grant the governor the power to cut or eliminate any existing program during a “fiscal emergency.”  In essence, the governor could usurp local government decisions on where to spend state funds.

Budgets for local public schools, community colleges or cities could be cut at the whim of the governor and the funds diverted elsewhere.  The governor could conceivably use new emergency powers to divert state funds to his choice of regional Strategic Action Plans.

Why Democrats and Unions Oppose Prop. 31

Public unions have historically been concerned about granting the governor broader emergency powers.  On July 11, 1999, the Gov. Gray Davis administration called legislative committee chairpersons to inform them that the governor intended to direct the outcomes of selected funding bills without consulting their authors or the legislature.  The leaders of the legislature at that time — Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, D-Los Angeles and Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco — called Davis’ actions a “totally improper intrusion into the legislative process.” The concern was that Davis was going to kill a bill sought by labor unions to increase workers’ compensation benefits.

This explains why the Democratic Party is currently opposed to Prop. 31 giving the governor emergency powers over the budget. Also, any consolidation or revenue sharing arrangement of local governments might lead to the heads of local unions losing their jobs if absorbed into a larger union.

Why Republican Party Wrongly Endorses Prop. 31

Oddly, the California Republican Party supports Prop. 31. This is because Prop. 31 is being misleadingly advertised as a government budgetary efficiency measure.  But a two-year budget and performance budgeting do not need the approval of voters to be implemented.

Budget analyst John Decker in his book, “California in the Balance: Why Budgets Matter,” draws on an example from the Schwarzenegger administration to explain why a voter initiative is not needed for Prop. 31, except for the tax sharing provisions:

“Amid much fanfare the year after his election, Governor Schwarzenegger announced the results of a year long internal effort to find efficiencies in government known as the California Performance Review.  Though most of the recommendations made could be implemented administratively, few were actually taken in the form proposed.”

Local governments can form “joint powers authorities” in California without Prop. 31 and make their own decisions about revenue sharing.  In an email to this writer about Prop. 31, Wendell Cox stated: “State law permits Joint Powers Authorities and this is all that is needed.”

Tea Party Rightly Opposes Prop. 31 Despite Paranoia

The proponents of Prop. 31 may say that the Tea Party and those opposed to fiscal regionalism are over-reacting to its provisions.  But why are the proponents trying so hard to sell Prop. 31 as a budget reform and government performance measure with little mention of its tax-sharing provisions?

The East Bay Tea Party has more accurately perceived the dangers with Prop. 31 as the creation of a “super” layer of government that cannot be held accountable by local government elections.  Unfortunately, the paranoid Tea Party also fears that Prop. 31 would measure the “performance and accountability” of local governments by United Nations Agenda 21.

No doubt this sort of paranoia reflects the powerlessness and political marginalization of the Tea Party’s members in California. But such paranoia gives the opponents of the Tea Party reasons to discount them as “wing nuts” not to be taken seriously.

California Forward Hides Tax Sharing Part of Prop. 31

California Forward is selling Prop. 31 to the public as “trustworthy, accountable for results, cost-effective, transparent, focused on results, cooperative, closer to the people, supportive of regional job generation, willing to listen, thrifty and prudent.” The touted provisions of Prop. 31 call for a “two-year budget cycle” and for “performance budgeting.” Prop. 31 is officially titled “The Government Performance and Accountability Act.

California Forward makes no mention in its filing or in its official ballot argument in favor of it that Prop. 31 will socialize state revenue sharing.  And the analysis of the California Legislative Analyst is so neutral and narrowly focused that it is does not help the public understand the importance of the tax-sharing aspects. The ballot arguments in favor and against Prop. 31 also ignore that it would socialize local government taxes by regions.

Commentariat Mislead About Prop. 31

It is amazing that California’s journalistic commentariat has, thus far, only been concerned that Prop. 31:

* Is a Trojan horse that would result in “tweaking” environmental regulations;

* Prescribes an “aspirin” instead of “surgery”;

* Is a “virtuous budget reform package that falls short;” but

* Would “restore our state to greatness.”

Wendell Cox is one of the few that has caught the magnitude of the problem of regionalism to our democratic form of government when he wrote, “[D]emocracy is a timeless value. If people lose control of their governments to special interests, then democracy is lost, though the word will still be invoked.”

In an email, Cox further wrote:

“In general, the idea of tax sharing is negative. This breaks the connection between local governments and taxpayers, as tax sharing governments are, by definition, not accountable to the taxpayers of jurisdiction with which they share taxes. Milton Friedman was right in saying something to the effect that people are more careful about with their own money than they are with other people’s money. This would be a very bad step for California, which already is suffering significant ill effects from insufficient fiscal responsibility.” 

Prop. 31 is Ripe for Abuse 

Safires’ Political Dictionary defines “tax sharing” as “collection of revenues by the (state) government, returned directly to the (local) governments without (state) control of expenditures.”  Prop. 31 would go beyond merely returning tax revenues to local governments without controls and conditions attached.  It would be prone to abuse for funding political cronies and political earmarks.

When former President Clinton proposed a form of revenue sharing in an economic stimulus bill, Republicans described it as political pork and successfully blocked it.  But in the California Legislature, the Republican Party no longer has any blocking power.  Prop. 31 would be prone to abuse because there are few checks and balances anymore in California’s new “Fusion Party.”

History indicates bureaucratic agencies have a way of not ending up as policy makers intended. There is no way of knowing whether Prop. 31 would end up as some form of “Tennessee Valley Authority” that would usurp local governments and would be self-perpetuating without any sunset provisions.

Voters on both sides of the political spectrum should be concerned about the implications of Prop. 31.

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