Today’s LA Times contains a “news analysis” by Evan Halper that seeks to explain why taxpayers seem to be getting less for their tax dollars. But the most obvious point goes almost totally ignored – that tax cuts have reduced the ability of government to provide for basic services. Since that isn’t part of this article, the effect is to mislead readers into thinking government is misusing tax dollars, and thus winds up reinforcing right-wing frames.
Reporting from Sacramento — Middle-class Californians have long griped about paying more taxes than they might pay elsewhere, but for decades this state could boast that it gave them quite a bit in return. Now that contract is in doubt.
A modern freeway system, easy access to superior universities and progressive health programs used to be part of the compact. Even local schools plagued with financial problems continued to offer small classes, innovative after-school programs and advanced arts and music curricula.
These opening paragraphs set the tone for a flawed article. That “social compact” has not really functioned as Halper suggests since 1978. Our freeway system was largely in place by that time. Additional freeways were mostly paid for by higher taxes – even Orange County has voted to tax itself twice since 1990 to build and expand freeways. The “innovative after-school programs” were created by ballot-box budgeting. Advanced arts and music curricula have been absent from most districts in the state since the 1980s.
In short, Halper starts from a flawed premise.
But at a time when taxes are about to rise substantially, the services that have long set this state apart are deteriorating. The latest budget cuts hit public programs prized by California’s middle class particularly hard — in some cases at the expense of preserving a tattered safety net for the poor — following years of what analysts characterize as under-investment….
“Twenty years ago, you could go to Texas, where they had very low taxes, and you would see the difference between there and California,” said Joel Kotkin, a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University in Orange. “Today, you go to Texas, the roads are no worse, the public schools are not great but are better than or equal to ours, and their universities are good. The bargain between California’s government and the middle class is constantly being renegotiated to the disadvantage of the middle class.”
And here you see the right-wing framing – in some cases made explicit, that programs benefiting the middle-class have been cut to “preserve a tattered safety net for the poor.” Kotkin, a high-profile conservative think tank figure who has blamed “greens” for the state’s current crisis is never going to explain how tax cuts have caused California to fall behind in maintaining its once-great systems of education and health care.
The closest Halper gets to acknowledging the true nature of the problem is here:
The reasons are varied. The cost of services continues to outpace inflation. Programs are being squeezed out by things the government was not providing in the halcyon 1950s and early 1960s, including Medi-Cal and some welfare programs. And the state has been reluctant to embrace new ways of funding services while holding back state money to plug other holes in the budget.
In fact Medi-Cal’s earliest origins lie in the 1959 legislative session, as do some welfare programs. Halper gingerly discusses a state “reluctant to embrace new ways of funding services” but this is the closest his article will ever get to the truth, which is that the conservative veto has prevented California from raising taxes to keep the services flowing to the middle class. Even Ronald Reagan did this in 1967 but you would never know it from Halper’s article.
Nor does Halper explain, anywhere, the billions in tax cuts that have been made since 1978 – a structural revenue shortfall that costs California at least $12 billion a year. Halper does a good job of showing how our basic services are underfunded but totally fails to explain the reasons why. As a result he closes his article with comments from conservatives like Mitt Romney and Joel Kotkin that not only go unanswered by any progressive voices, but go unanswered by reality:
Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney spoke to the frustrations of many California parents during a speech at last weekend’s state GOP convention in Sacramento. Pointing out all the taxes Californians are now paying, he asked, according to the Sacramento Bee: “With all that money, how are your schools?”
The simple answer is: Not what they used to be. And now the state is cutting billions more out of them, including money set aside to keep classes small and to fund arts and music electives.
“The social compact is: I pay taxes and good things happen,” Kotkin said. “But I pay a lot of taxes and can’t send my kid to our local public schools because they are terrible.”
Conservatives broke that social compact by telling Californians “you can pay less taxes and good things will happen.” It’s wrong for conservatives to turn around and say “oh gee the system’s screwed up” when they are responsible for the mess.
And it’s inexcusable for the LA Times to reinforce such right-wing sentiments with such an article that refuses to point out what actually went wrong, and who is responsible for it.
Robert Cruickshank is a historian, activist, and teacher living in Monterey. He is a contributing editor at Calitics.com and works for the Courage Campaign, in addition to teaching political science at Monterey Peninsula College. Currently he is completing his Ph.D. dissertation in US history, on progressive politics in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s. A native Californian, he was raised in Orange County and educated at UC Berkeley.