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State gains voice, not federal funds, with Feb. primary

California taxpayers have been shortchanged by Washington for years. And not much will change merely because we hold an early presidential primary.

Don’t expect us to gain a ton more political “clout” and friendly access to the federal vault, as promised by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic legislative leaders in justifying the roughly $75 million cost of an extra election next year.

Rather, as I’ve written before, the most important benefit to Californians of an early primary will be the opportunity to cast a vote while it’s still meaningful -- to actually participate in choosing the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees.

With so many big states hustling to hold their primaries on the same date, Feb. 5, the nominations could be all but locked up by the next morning.

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That’s plenty enough reason to move up the primary from June.

And it’s sufficient reason to overlook the legislative leaders’ self-interest in calling an early election so voters can loosen term limits before their power turns into a pumpkin at year’s end.

But Schwarzenegger -- whose own goal is passage of a ballot measure stripping the Legislature of redistricting power -- has embellished the early primary as a clout-builder and money-maker. So have Democratic leaders, especially Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez of Los Angeles.

It is true, as they assert, that an early primary will force prospective presidents to at least pay lip service to issues of special interest to California, such as illegal immigration and water.

But it’s unlikely that this will result in an appreciably better return on California’s tax dollar. There are bigger influences on federal spending than raw politics, regardless of Sacramento’s fantasy.

The main determinant of federal dollar distribution is demographics. Pretty simple. California is a relatively youthful state, so there are fewer Social Security and Medicare payments, per capita. It’s also a prosperous state, so there are higher income tax payments -- and, on average, fewer welfare checks and Medicaid reimbursements (Medi-Cal in California) than elsewhere.

One of the favorite numbers of state politicians these days is 79 -- as in, for every tax dollar California sends to Washington it gets back only 79 cents in federal spending.

In hyping an early primary, Schwarzenegger last month told L.A. reporter Dave Bryan of KCAL-TV Channel 9 that it’s important to elect the right president for California -- “Someone that really looks at us and says, ‘You know, they are only getting 79 cents a dollar.... I think this is unfair. We should give them 90 cents a dollar, or 95 cents on the dollar.’ ”

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To his credit, Schwarzenegger also went on to mention the overriding outrage of allowing the pipsqueak states to dominate the early primaries: “California ... is stuck with what other states nominate ... and we are not part of the mix. And it’s unfair.”

But there is a disconnect in trying to link an early primary to federal largesse. If there were such a link, spoiled New Hampshire -- which long has held the nation’s first primary -- would be backing up trucks to the Treasury. Instead, it is worse off even than California, ranking as the No. 2 donor state to Washington. That’s because it has even less poverty and more per-capita wealth than California.

New Hampshire gets back only 65 cents on the tax dollar, according to the nonpartisan California Institute for Federal Policy Research in Washington.

This is the respected outfit that provides most of the wonky information about state-federal fiscal relationships. And California politicians use it selectively to beat up on Washington, which admittedly is irresistible, especially given the current president.

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Trekking off to Washington during magnolia blossom time -- a precursor to cherry flowering -- has long been an annual ritual of state legislators lobbying for California’s “fair share.” One third of the Assembly was there this week, led by Nunez.

And remember Schwarzenegger shortly after he was elected in the 2003 Gray Davis recall? He was going to be “the Collectinator” of federal dollars. He has since muted the bravado.

Tim Ransdell, executive director of the California Institute, places the state’s annual “balance of payments deficit” at roughly $52 billion -- taxes paid over spending returned.

“We are doomed to be a donor state,” he says. “The question is, how much is OK. When does it become too much?

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“The large majority of the deficit is structural. Demographics. Just a fact of life.

“A much smaller portion is money we aren’t getting and should be getting.”

Homeland security money is a good example. “California really is getting considerably less than it should because of what has turned into a political skewing.”

The Founding Fathers skewed us when they created a Congress with a Senate that treats all states equally, regardless of population.

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That’s why California still basically receives only its population share of Homeland Security grants, 12% of the total kitty. This, despite the high risk of terrorist attacks at major seaports, international airports and landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge. But cattle-grazing Wyoming makes out big with terrorist-protection money.

Another cause of our shortchange was the end of the Cold War. The defense industry declined and bases closed.

California became less of a donor state in 1994 because we suffered a calamitous earthquake in Northridge, and the feds sent a huge care package.

So there is good news: We’re getting shortchanged by Washington, mainly because we’re prosperous. We have relatively few poor people. And we haven’t had a major disaster recently.

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And we’ll get to help choose a more California-friendly president.

George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.


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