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Dollars and Sense: The tax code is a lot more important than it is interesting, so please just stick with us here. We'll be brief.

Code Red

Governance reform group California Forward wants to hear Santa Cruz's ideas on fixing the budget mess.

By Jessica Lussenhop

If taxes are as certain as death, Santa Cruz County Treasurer Fred Keeley is just as sure that California will find a way to bugger them up. "Our tax system is very, very outdated and it leads to enormous chaos," he said. "It's one of the major contributing factors to why the budget is so difficult to put together and [why] it virtually never reflects the values of California."

He spoke during a break during a meeting of California Forward, a bipartisan public interest group that aspires to fix the structure of the state's fiscal system, increase the quality of public service and subdue the out-of-control budget process. The group has been invited to testify to the Governor's Commission on the 21st Century Economy on tax reform options, and so Keeley, as a member of both groups, is hitting the road to find out, straight from the horse's mouth, what Californians think needs to be done. First stop? Why, Santa Cruz of course. "I asked for it to be first," he said. "I want to hear what my homies have to say."

Over 100 homies--including county supervisors, city councilmembers, chambers of commerce directors and school district superintendents from the four corners of the county--will be gathering at Cabrillo College on March 19 to discuss why the tax system is broken and how to fix it.

Keeley already has plenty of theories. "Most people believe that creating good paying jobs is a positive thing, yet our tax system tends to treat the creation of jobs as if it's a bad thing by taxing it," he said. "We tax the things we say we like."

Keeley also says the system was never updated from California's days as a primarily manufacturing and goods economy to today's service-based economy, nor reworked to promote the tenets of A.B. 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act.

"We aspire to a green economy, but our tax policy doesn't create incentives for risk-takers to create jobs in California to make that happen," he said. "We should also examine a carbon tax. If pollutants are allowed to go into the air untaxed then the public still pays for the cost in public health care."

Although the meeting will have plenty of local bigwigs in attendance, Keeley is just as interested in the average Santa Cruzan's feelings on how the current system has affected everyday life. The connection won't be hard to make the week after massive teacher layoffs across the county and the slate of unpopular but necessary ballot measures in the upcoming May election, some of which are poised to take state money away from mental health and early childhood programs to close the budget gap. But the main purpose is not to bitch and moan.

"This isn't the Hillary Clinton listening tour. It is largely designed to put some provocative concepts out there," said Keeley. "The only way to achieve reform in the area is to go throughout the state and talk about these things, engage people in a dialogue."

The roundtable discussion, co-hosted by District 27 Assemblyman Bill Monning, will be equal parts presentation and small-group discussion, followed by an ingenious interactive keypad portion that will create an instant poll among the small-groups and take the temperature of the group on various tax reform ideas.

Bill Monning and Fred Keeley host the California Forward Community Dialogue on Tax Reform on Thursday, March 19, from 5:30 to 9pm at Cabrillo College, 6500 Soquel Dr., Aptos. Open to public, but space is limited; RSVP at 415.454.6500. More information at

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