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Your Taxes at Work in Alabama

Whether you live in Eureka or Escondido, vote Democrat or Republican, make six figures or barely break even, one thing unites all Californians.

We’re being pickpocketed.

For every dollar sent to Washington in federal taxes in 2004, the last year for which records are available, 79 cents came back to the state in spending, contracts and services. To put it another way, that’s a $52-billion shortfall, the largest in the nation according to the California Institute for Federal Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

Some states -- Alabama, Virginia and Maryland to name a few -- actually get back more than they put in. That’s your money being spent in their states on such things as federal salaries, highway funds and contracts to local businesses.

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I was thinking about this rip-off while going through my sample ballot for the November election and perusing the $37 billion in state bonds we’re being asked to approve for highways, ports, schools and parks, among other things. With a fair shake from D.C., we could do all that and more.

That’s the point Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez of Los Angeles was making a couple of weeks ago when he accused President Bush of using our state as an ATM. While the president was in California, tying up traffic on a fund-raising expedition, Nunez was calling on Bush to fork over $6.5 billion for homeland security, healthcare and education.

“If we got this, which is just a fraction of what the federal government owes us, it would actually put California’s fiscal house in order,” Nunez told me.

Not everyone agrees on the exact size of the shortfall, as I’ll explain in a moment, and Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) called Nunez’s demand a “laughable” election-year “gimmick.”

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“Actually, I think we have done well,” Dreier, chairman of the House Rules Committee, said about the efforts of California’s congressional delegation to send more money home.

Excuse me?

We’ve got the nation’s biggest deficit in total dollars, and we’re 44th if you go by a percentage return. (All this info and more, by the way, can be found at www.calinst.org, the California Institute for Federal Policy Research. Click on Fair Share).

OK, Dreier admitted, we’re under water. But it’s not easy to throw ourselves on the mercy of the Dakotas and Carolinas when they look to the Golden State with, as Dreier called it, “J-E-A-L-O-U-S-Y.”

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Is it jealousy? Or is it contempt for all us godless, sunbaked heathens? Probably a little of both.

California has done better of late, Dreier argued, but “we can do even better than we have.”

It’s no surprise, of course, that a Republican might put a nice little spin on a $52-billion jam-job, given that the GOP controls both houses of Congress and the White House. But in Washington, the practice of sticking it to California comes with its own cute little acronym -- ABC.

“Anywhere but California,” Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein explained. “There’s no question we don’t get back what we pay in taxes,” she told me, “and it’s a constant battle.”

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So why are we such losers?

The answer gets complicated, as Tim Ransdell of the nonpartisan California Institute explained. The shrinking of the state’s defense and aerospace industries left us with fewer federal contracts, and military base closures didn’t help.

And a lot of federal funding is doled out on the basis of formulas that don’t always work in our favor. Californians are younger than the national average and have higher average incomes. What that means, Ransdell said, is that we’re a donor state on Social Security and we come up short on welfare funding.

So whether the state’s real shortfall is $6.5 billion, $25 billion, $52 billion or more depends on how you count, Ransdell said. But there’s no doubt we’re in the hole.

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Playing devil’s advocate, I asked him if he thought we should quit griping, given our great wealth and relatively healthy economy.

Yeah, we’ve got wealth, he said. We’ve also got more than a few problems, including unfunded mandates for services to a large population of illegal immigrants.

“Fifty-some-odd billion dollars is well above and beyond our call of duty,” Ransdell said.

And when it comes to homeland security spending, California really gets stiffed. That’s partly because states with more cattle than people have the same number of U.S. senators as California, giving them equal clout.

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“There is a formula that sends dollars in a completely counterintuitive way, favoring sparse populations over dense ones,” Ransdell said.

In other words, we can’t adequately defend major ports and airports that are obvious targets, but there are backwater states with well-guarded windmills and crop-dusters.

“That’s ridiculous,” Ransdell said. “Patently ridiculous.”

So what ever happened to the tough-guy governor who used to call himself -- what was it? -- oh, yeah.

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The Collectinator.

As with a lot of promises, like tearing up the state credit card and using his own money to campaign, that one hasn’t quite worked out.

“He regularly talks to me about it and we’re working on it,” said Dreier, who claimed success in some areas, such as increased federal funding for the incarceration of illegal immigrants.

Schwarzenegger probably didn’t help the cause last week on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” when he said attempts by Democratic challenger Phil Angelides to link him to President Bush were like trying to link him with an Oscar. Funny line, but I doubt Bush was laughing.

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And speaking of presidents, I say we dump the goofy electoral college and pick a commander in chief by popular vote, so they can’t blow off states they won’t carry. California would do better than 79 cents on the dollar if that were the case, wouldn’t it?

“Oh, yes,” Feinstein said. “Let there be no doubt.”

It would also help, she said, if Democrats take control of one or both houses in next month’s election, or win the presidency in two years.

According to Ransdell, California did fare better when Bill Clinton was president, with the state shortfall under him ranging from $4 billion to $30 billion.

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“You asked me what I think we need to do,” Feinstein said, “and I should take the lead, because I’m on the Appropriations Committee.”

Feinstein said she and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) need to decide on a few areas where they think they can squeeze another dollar or two out of their colleagues, and then get the rest of California’s congressional delegation to back them up.

Hey, Collectinator, you game?

Come on, tough guy. Get us 90 cents on the dollar and the next cigar’s on me.

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Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at www.latimes.com/lopez.


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