The Sciences

Fixing California

Cosmic VarianceBy John ConwayDec 21, 2009 7:31 PM


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This past year has been a long, slow downward spiral for California into one of the worst financial crises in state history. Revised revenue projections in February led to huge slashes in funding for an array of programs from higher education to state parks, and a $25 billion budget shortfall looms next year. State employes and university (both Cal State and UC) employees have been furloughed, and UC tuition has gone up dramatically - 32% within a year. Protests at Berkeley, UCLA, and my own institution, UC Davis, led to dozens of arrests in November. [I was amazed, the night of November 19, to see a helicopter with a powerful searchlight circling over the main administration building at UC Davis. The police, many from jurisdictions 20 miles away, had created a perimeter about 100 yards from the building, which was still occupied by students who were later arrested for trespass (and the campus police returned to find their tires slashed). The next week saw another protest, resulting in amnesty for those previously arrested...] People are angry, and justifiably so. There are over 400,000 parents in the state who are getting a giant kick in the pants (myself among them - my daughter is at Berkeley). But who should we be angry at? Faculty? UC administration? The government in Sacramento? The global economy? What can we change that will truly fix the problems California faces? One simple and direct idea has emerged, from a professor of linguistics at Berkeley, George Lakoff. He proposes the following 14-word amendment to the state constitution for the Nov. 2010 state ballot:

All legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote.

With a million signatures, this proposition will be on the ballot next fall, and I am going to predict at this point that this will very likely be the case. If adopted, this would put an end to the 2/3 majority of the legislature required in California to enact any tax increase, and thereby end the present tyranny of the minority that hamstrings the state that I wrote about before. No one wants their taxes to go up. But there are some real no-brainers out there, in my opinion:

  • Increase the state gasoline tax. In February the legislature failed to enact an increase of 12 cents per gallon on top of the present 18 cent tax that would have raised over $2 billion per year.

  • Tax energy extraction. Inexplicably, California is the only oil-producing state that does not tax oil extraction. The failed 2006 Proposition 87, with a 6% capped tax on extracted oil, would have generated over $1 billion in revenue per year. (By contrast, Sarah Palin raised the Alaska energy extraction tax to 25%!)

  • Decriminalize marijuana. There is in fact going to be a proposition on the 2010 ballot to do just that. A combination of legalization, taxation, and drug education, much as we treat alcohol (a far more dangerous drug) will be vastly superior to incarceration. Legal growers will drive the smugglers out of California. How much revenue could be generated by taxing one of California's largest crops is hard to guess. It's a lot.

  • Repeal corporate tax loopholes. There could be a ballot initiative on this next fall as well. It's technical stuff: loss carry-backs, tax credit-sharing, and the single-sales factor. But it's potentially $2.5 billion per year! And again, California is alone in some of this ridiculousness.

There are plenty more ideas out there, I am sure. In any case, it is the majority who should decide. The is how it is done in every other state in the union. California is far from being the most heavily taxed state in the nation - I believe there is plenty of room to solve the present crisis and create a state worthy of being one of the largest economies in the world.

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