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[whitespace] Unlucky 13

More problems than solutions in state government, says author Peter Schrag

By Yosha Bourgea

PETER SCHRAG knows his politics. Not surprising, since the columnist and former editorial page editor for the Sacramento Bee has been covering the capitol beat for more than 20 years. Last year, he drew upon his experience to write Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future (New Press; $25), an examination of California's decline from the postwar years, when its commitment to public services was a model for the nation, to the present state of affairs 40 years later, when the economy suffers from multiple structural problems and the public sector is no better than mediocre.

What Schrag says in his book, and reiterates over the phone, is that most people don't even begin to understand the welter of tax limits, special districts, and reform initiatives that clog the state government--and that goes for legislators as well as citizens.

"Nobody can figure out who's responsible for what, or who's in charge of anything," Schrag says. "It makes people frustrated."

Ironically, the source of much of this complexity may lie with the people themselves. Beginning in the late '70s with Proposition 13, voters angry with skyrocketing property values passed a series of "tax revolt" laws that reduced local property taxes and drastically limited the fiscal power of local government. The tax revolt burdened the state government with local responsibilities, Schrag says, but left it without the authority to carry them out.

Schrag will discuss the situation next week at a pair of Santa Rosa Junior College lectures. Following the presentation, a panel including Assemblywoman Pat Wiggins, Santa Rosa Mayor Janet Condron, and Santa Rosa School Board President Hugh Futrell will discuss how citizens, the private sector, and government can work together to improve California's future.

This is the second time that SRJC has sponsored a talk by Schrag on the subject of California's political malaise. The first presentation, held at Readers' Books in Sonoma, was sparsely attended.

Assemblywoman Pat Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, says that Schrag's book addresses the effects of what voters set in motion with Proposition 13. "It shows that you have to be careful what you ask for," she says. "The biggest source of income for city governments is now sales tax revenue, and so they go around chasing big boxes, and that sucks the vitality out of the heart of the cities."

 

PROP. 13, which essentially froze property taxes for many homeowners at 1 percent, appealed greatly to homeowners at the time. But with the tax, the available revenue for public services was significantly diminished. Moreover, Prop. 13 put the responsibility for dividing that revenue into the hands of the state government.

"In a state of more than 30 million people," Schrag writes, "the legislature and governor have become the arbiters of local priorities."

At the same time, Prop. 13 hamstrung the state government by requiring a two-thirds vote in order to raise most taxes. Now every determined political minority group has veto power, particularly the conservative Republicans in the State Assembly (known as the "Proposition 13 babies") who control more than a third of the votes. And initiatives that attempt to gather revenue for public services by raising taxes are generally given the cold shoulder at the ballot box. A prime example of this process is the recent fate of measures B and C in Sonoma County. Support for Measure B, which outlined improvements for Highway 101, was enthusiastic; at the same time, voters soundly rejected Measure C, which would have paid for the improvements by raising taxes.

Without property tax revenue, Schrag says, the infrastructure of the state has steadily weakened. California's public schools, once among the best in the country, now rank near the bottom; universities have shrunk their enrollments and raised their fees. Public health services, which lack a powerful constituency and have no lobbyists to speak of, operate on shoestring budgets, often with little or no help from Sacramento.

As a veteran reporter, Schrag is skilled at asking questions. When it comes to finding answers, however, he's much more cautious. "There are a lot more problems than I've got solutions, let me tell you," he says. As long as property owners constitute a majority of voters, the likelihood of raising property taxes again is slim indeed.

"Is there some way you could get rid of Prop. 13? No," Schrag says flatly. "But that doesn't mean that over the long haul, with some good leadership--which this state hasn't had in a long time--you couldn't maybe change the public perception of some of these issues."


Peter Schrag will give a lecture entitled "California at the Millennium" at noon and again at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 18, at SRJC's Newman Auditorium. Admission is free.

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From the October 14-20, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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