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66. The biggest loser

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I was wrong, but not by much. A venal, fragile, and fictitious state budget was adopted on Friday by a deer-in-the-headlights frightened state legislature. The budget the legislature muddled through won't last a full six months; it probably won't last until the end of November.I was wrong about the date of the budget's adoption. And I was wrong about the degree of damage that will be done to cities like the one I work for.

The damage we have is bad enough. Under the budget agreement; the state will borrow approximately $1.9 billion in property taxes from local governments, equal to about eight percent of the property taxes that cities and counties receive. Under the terms of Proposition 1A, the borrowed property tax revenue is supposed to be repaid in three years with interest. So, where will the state get well over $2 billion in 36 months?

The state will expropriate $1.7 billion from redevelopment agencies this fiscal year and an additional $350 million in 2010-2011. Cities and counties "? nearly half of the state's local governments, as I write this "? intend to sue on constitutional grounds that the state's takings are illegal. And if local governments are vindicated, where will the state get another $2 billion?

But the state Assembly killed the most controversial budget proposal "? one that would have taken about $1 billion in gasoline tax money from local governments. That's the money that cities and counties use to repair streets and highways. It isn't the state's money (although the state collects it). It's part of the sales tax that car owners pay on every gallon of gas "? the one sales tax that directly benefits precisely those who pay it.

In a lot of northern California counties, gasoline tax revenue is 100 percent of highway funding. In many big cities, it can be as much as 50 percent.

The damage we don't see will be more tragic. And California voters "? so well trained to respond only to the symbols and swear words of California politics "? haven't much perspective on what will happen.

The disapproval rating for the legislature is above 80 percent and is strongly held and widely shared by voters in all demographics. But voters are evenly split on their own legislators: 39 percent to 39 percent. Except only 33 percent of these voters can come up with a name for their state senator or assembly member. And only 7 percent get the name right, according to a recent poll.

When these voters are asked if the state should cuts program or increase taxes, 67 percent favor cuts and 23 percent favor tax increases. But when the programs the state funds are described, most of the 67 percent of the "cutters" don't want those programs curtailed. The only areas with a higher percentage of "cut" to "don't cut" are prisons and state parks.

It's these voters "? uncertain of their legislator's identity and unwilling to pay for what they want "? who are going to be this budget's biggest losers.

The image on this page was taken by Flickr user bcmacsac1. It was used under a Creative Commons license.

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