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Truth is too much for voters

An e-mailer had it basically right the other day. He likened the public’s mind-set about government to what Marine Col. Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson) barked at young Navy prosecutor Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) in the movie “A Few Good Men.”

Jessep: “You want answers?”

Kaffee: “I want the truth.”

Jessep: “You can’t handle the truth!”

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Roman, the e-mailer, wrote me that the older he gets, the more he realizes that “the Jack Nicholson moment may be close to the truth” about the public.

“It’s always easier to blame someone else,” Roman wrote. “As soon as the electorate plays an intelligent role in government, then we can get ‘intelligent’ representatives.”

Although I believe that much of the public and many of its elected representatives live in denial, calling the voters unintelligent is a bit harsh. After all, they’re constantly lied to by the politicians whenever the pols’ own self-interests are at stake.

But clearly many California voters refuse to recognize the truth, let alone try to handle it.

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Here’s a good example: Polls always have shown that the public strongly favors California’s dopey requirement that a state budget be passed by a two-thirds majority of each legislative house. It’s an inanity, given that a 60% vote in elections is considered a landslide.

It’s a legislative straitjacket that has led to chronically late budgets, low bond ratings and the stiffing of private vendors by a cash-strapped state. It’s tyranny by the minority, staunchly defended by Republicans because it makes them relevant inside the Capitol.

Only two other states -- Arkansas and Rhode Island -- require a supermajority legislative vote for budget passage.

Not surprisingly, California and Rhode Island recently tied for dead last when all the states were graded on fiscal management. The grader -- the Pew Center on the States -- gave California and Rhode Island only D+ marks. Arkansas managed a middling B-, the national average.

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Term limits is another example of the public’s inability to handle the truth. Voters believe that term limits keep lawmakers in check. But the truth is that they rob Sacramento of legislative experience, policy knowledge and the incentive to plan long-range for California’s needs.

On Wednesday, the Legislature’s two Democratic leaders -- Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) -- expressed hope that the public can be persuaded to handle the truth about the need for tax increases to balance the books without whacking more government programs.

“We’ve heard so much about the greatest generation,” Perata told reporters. “Is it too much to ask, in the memory of someone who died at Normandy, to pay a nickel more for a latte?”

That’s a nice sound bite -- and that’s why I’m using it -- but I’m not sure what he’s talking about.

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Democrats are not proposing a tax on lattes -- or a sales tax hike on anything. And it’s unfortunate. The sales tax system badly needs updating for a 21st century economy. Sales taxes should be extended to services and overall rates lowered.

Maybe next year, Capitol leaders say, in their best L.A. Clippers imitation.

On Tuesday night, Democrats did propose nearly $10 billion in tax hikes. Of that, $5.6 billion would come from adding higher income tax rates of 10% and 11% on the wealthiest Californians -- couples with taxable incomes above $321,000 and $642,000 respectively. The top rate currently is 9.3%, reached by couples with taxable incomes above $93,000.

Democrats also proposed freezing the “indexing” of income tax brackets, which would result in higher taxes for the middle class. Indexing is what prevents wage-earners from automatically moving up to a higher bracket whenever they receive a cost-of-living raise.

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Perata said that if the impoverished aged, blind and disabled are denied cost-of-living benefit hikes -- which they will be -- income taxpayers also should be denied adjustments in their brackets. That does make sense.

Democrats also proposed closing some corporate tax loopholes, reducing the dependent tax exemption for couples earning more than $150,000 and raising the corporate tax rate to 9.3% from 8.4%.

Actually, much of this tax-raising merely involves returning taxes to what they were before Sacramento, in boom times, went nuts with tax-cutting and spending.

Bass contended that the Legislature has cut spending by more than $12 billion over the last three budgets.

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“We just can’t cut anymore and still be the kind of California anyone would hope to live in,” she said.

“Californians are telling us don’t decimate education, don’t shred the safety net, don’t close parks and don’t keep kids out of health clinics. The straight truth is that takes revenue. And the straight truth is we can solve this [$15-billion] budget deficit by closing tax loopholes and rolling back overly generous tax breaks that were given to big corporations and the wealthiest Californians.”

The straight truth is Californians want good schools, the safety net, clean parks and kids’ healthcare -- and want someone else to pay.

But when people hear the truth about the state’s dire predicament, the legislative leaders predicted, they’ll support higher taxes -- just as they did $42 billion in infrastructure bonds two years ago. Problem is, that bond money only recently has begun to get spent. Not a real confidence-builder for the public.

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The real truth is that Sacramento leaders don’t have much credibility with the public. Even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has lost his clout -- with the public and the Legislature.

For any tax hike to pass, the governor will need to execute a perfect flip-flop -- from “guaranteed” veto to “oops, new position” -- and perform politically for Republicans. Some fund-raising for them would help.

And Democrats will need to give in to GOP demands for budget reforms that would help staunch the bleeding.

Col. Jessep presumably was convicted for telling the truth. Politicians can be tossed from office for being too candid. But in California, legislators are protected by gerrymandered districts.

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So the lawmakers might as well be straight with voters and lead -- not fret about whether they can handle it.

--

george.skelton@latimes.com


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