Vote no on Measure J
September 28, 2016
OPINION by GORDON MULLIN
Measure J is yet another proposed tax increase on November’s ballot. It’s been requested by our local governments and is intended to fund roads and transportation infrastructure. I’m voting no. Here’s why.
First, some background. The State of California used to pass along a bigger slice of the gasoline and other state levied taxes to the junior levels of government, counties and cities, with the intent that the money would be used for road upkeep and transportation projects. But, and this will come as no surprise to anyone who follows California politics, the state has been keeping an increasing share of these funds and spending them on their own priorities.
Obviously, the state feels that giving money to local governments and letting them spend your tax dollars is not as satisfying as keeping the money and spending it themselves despite previous assurances that they would pass it on. There is more political power garnered if one controls where a tax dollar is spent as opposed to passing it on to junior levels where they then get the credit at the ballot box.
So the local governments have less money today to spend on roads than they used to. No one disputes this. Not I.
Therefore, the SLO County government and its cities are proposing to us taxpayers that we become a “self help” county, increase the sales tax and use the money to fund roads and other transportation infrastructure. The SLO Council of Governments (SLOCOG) guesstimates that a one-half percent increase in the sales tax, county wide, would generate about $25 million a year and that’s about what they want, another $25 million.
Let me pause here to throw a small wad of mud at the backers of Measure J. If you go to their website you’ll find that they continue, despite knowing better, to call the tax “a half cent” sales tax rather than what it really is, a one-half of one percent (0.5 percent) sales tax.
Some folks know the two phrases have different meanings; some obviously are math challenged and can’t tell the difference. Are they purposely misleading voters? I don’t know. But I know for certain what the real wording is in the Measure, as do they, the actual wording is found on their website, in the ordinance itself. Yet, they purposely use false language to sell the measure.
That aside, I feel better now, I don’t want to give an extra $25 million to county governments. Why not you ask? Here’s why.
Now, for the sake of discussion, I’ll assume that we could use more investment in filling potholes and transportation planning, etc. And, I’m willing to assume we need, let’s say, an extra $25 million on top of existing road budgets to do it. My objection is why an additional tax?
Why not rethink existing budgets, reset priorities within existing revenues? Why does government always ask for more taxpayer dollars? Why not shuffle existing budgets and use some of those funds to fill pot holes?
I’ll tell you why politicians don’t like the idea. Because it’s hard to do. Behind every dollar currently spent by governments stands a constituency that receives benefit and they’ll get mad at any politician that asks for a buck to be moved from pot A to pot B, if you work for pot A. That’s the problem and every politician knows it.
Think back and ask yourself, when’s the last time a government decided to axe a program because they wanted to use the money elsewhere? Anyone know? Anyone remember?
Recall. Every government program at one point didn’t exist. Then someone said let’s do X. Let’s tax our citizens, provide X program or service to those in ‘need’ and let’s see how it goes.
From that springs two groups. The first is the civil service employee and the second is the recipient of said service. The first becomes invested in their job, salary, benefits and pension and the second comes to feel that the service is now an entitlement and both will object strenuously if it comes under threat. The program become a sacred cow and the two groups will vigorously work, come election time, against any politician that even thinks of challenging the existing order.
Politicians know that there are few motivations as powerful as the loss of a job or an entitlement. All programs become third rails. So every program becomes an entitlement and therefore untouchable, especially at the local level.
Then every time governments want to do something additional, and in the case of Measure J spend an extra $25 million on roads, they look for new tax revenues from us citizens rather than seek the funds by reallocating the resources they have.
It would be interesting if we asked our elected representatives to stand up and say out loud whether they think Measure J, the very program that they are asking us to fund, if that program is less important than every other program in their existing budgets. Everything else is more important? Is everything dollar being spent currently, better spent now than on the transportation proposal in Measure J?
If the answer is yes, it’s not particularly important, is it? If it’s no, it is important, then let’s ask, “what will you axe?”
I say, “stop.” We as taxpayers should demand that our governments, at all levels, should have to rethink budgets occasionally. All businesses and your and my family, from time to time are faced with the requirement to rejigger our budgets and so should governments. When family or business revenues change, we rethink our priorities. Why not governments?
But as I said above, it’s hard. It’s difficult, especially if you’re looking to hang on to your elected position.
Here’s two suggestions:
The first is for our county and local elected officials. Institute Zero Base budgeting. There are jurisdictions who already have it in place, and so do many companies. Indeed, a version of this is used religiously in my home.
It works like this:
Every two years, one year is too short a time frame, start from scratch. Often a city, or county level government will appoint a committee. I know; I too don’t like the idea of more committees, but you’ll see my point shortly.
On this committee, no one can sit who gets a dollar from the government, directly or indirectly. The conflict is evident. That committee evaluates the ‘value’ of every dollar spent, every program offered and prioritizes them; ranks them.
They have nothing to do with revenues received. They are tasked with uncovering inefficiencies, looking for ways and means to save a buck, and asking “if we had to choose, would we axe or modify program X or Y or Z? Which is more important? And, can we get something done more cheaply?”
You get the idea. An outside committee is used because it’s difficult for an elected person to say no to a constituent, employee or recipient. It’s easier for someone external to make that recommendation.
Of course, the elected body will eventually have to make a decision and feel the heat, but it’s mitigated by the committee, acting as a shield. The politician can say, “They made me do it!” It gives them some cover. It makes it easier to accomplish. And, let’s face it, this method would be better than our current, itched in stone, never reevaluate any dollar spent, process in place today.
The idea of zero based budgeting isn’t new and there are several models to choose from. But here’s my point. This is the best mechanism I know of to force government to rethink priorities. There may be others but this is the one I suggest. Got any better ideas?
Keep in mind, we’re talking $25 million here. If you add up the county and the seven incorporated city’s budgets, this $25 million comes to roughly 3 to 5 percent of their total budgets, depending on what you throw into the bucket. Could you reallocate 3 to 5 percent of your budget? Sure you could.
So, let’s make our county and cities do it too.
That’s my first suggestion:
My second suggestion is for you, the voter. Politicians won’t do this unless you force them. Even the good ones, well, I have my favorites. They know the scenario above is very hard to do but you can make it easier for them if you just say no to Measure J at the ballot box. Give them that incentive. Give them the means and motivation to rethink their budgets. Give them this tool, this freedom.
It’s the right thing to do. Else, where does it end? Ask yourself,when do governments stop growing? Answer, when they get no additional taxes.
And if you believe as I do that governments are big enough now, thank you, just say no to Measure J. Make them do the right thing.
It’s time to say no.