Column: Republicans have next to no power in California. But they do sometimes have good ideas
Republicans have no power in the state Capitol. But they sometimes have good ideas. Democrats even steal them.
GOP legislators in the Senate and Assembly announced their spending priorities for 2022 this week and hardly anyone noticed.
Why would anyone? Republicans are considered practically irrelevant.
Democrats hold supermajorities in both houses. They’re able to pass any bill they want regardless of what Republicans think. And Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom is a good bet to sign it.
GOP lawmakers — an oxymoron in Sacramento — can’t pass anything without lots of Democratic help. That’s not in the Democrats’ nature — nor would it be in the GOP’s if the political situation were reversed. Just look at Congress.
Nevertheless, the GOP’s solutions to vexing state problems sometimes make so much sense they should at the very least be seriously debated.
How to spend taxpayers’ money is always among the hottest issues in the Capitol. And that will be particularly true in 2022 with Sacramento again wallowing in a huge tax surplus.
The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office has projected a surplus of $31 billion for the next fiscal year beginning July 1. That figure will change — the guesses are upward — when the governor unveils his proposed state budget Monday.
Lucky Newsom has been basking in spare money ever since he took office in 2019. He topped out with a $76-billion windfall last year. The current year’s budget total is $263 billion.
“The fact we have a surplus means we have overtaxed people,” says Assemblyman Vince Fong (R-Bakersfield), vice chairman of the Assembly budget committee.
The bill would give the state, local governments, survivors and victims’ families the power to pursue legal action against gun manufacturers.
That’s a familiar GOP mantra, but it’s hard to dispute when the state keeps hauling in dollars it never anticipated.
“The ruling party in Sacramento doesn‘t want to have a discussion on tax relief,” Fong adds.
“But let’s have a debate. Start the debate with reducing the personal income tax across the board. And reducing tax burdens on small businesses.”
Fong is 100% correct about Democrats refusing to consider tax cuts.
But they’ll be forced to consider some form of tax reduction — if even just quietly among themselves — because the state apparently has reached the so-called Gann Limit. That’s a spending cap overwhelmingly approved by voters in 1979 during an era of tax-cutting rebellion.
Under the Gann Limit, there are ways for Democrats to avoid a permanent tax cut or a one-time tax rebate. The surplus money can be spent on infrastructure, K-12 schools and community colleges, local government, debt repayment or emergencies.
The Republicans’ priority list for spending seems to be headed by enhancing waterworks during this drought.
They also sensibly want to pour much more money into preventing and fighting devastating wildfires.
Their wish list is long:
A “holiday from the state’s gas and car taxes,” expanded renters’ tax relief and good mental health treatment for homeless people. Also, extra money for special education, mental health assistance and counseling, especially in rural areas that GOP lawmakers represent. And more money for charter schools.
Law enforcement should get a big boost, especially for combatting smash-and-grab retail thefts, Republicans say. Newsom already has pledged $305 million.
When Republicans propose spending large amounts to increase California’s water supply during a drought, the natural public reaction ordinarily would be “duh.”
But the GOP is proposing a major switch from the traditional “user pay” concept to “everyone pays.”
Major water projects have always been financed by the people who use the water — farmers, homeowners, industrialists — through monthly bills. The one exception is for so-called public benefits, such as fish protection and recreation. Everybody pays for that.
Now, Republicans are proposing that the state general fund pony up with money collected from all taxpayers from Crescent City to Calexico.
This previously seemed like a bad idea to me. Why should taxpayers in Orange County pay to irrigate excessive almond orchards in the arid San Joaquin Valley, especially when much of the crop is exported to Asia?
But now I think the “everyone pays” concept warrants serious consideration. Water shortage is a statewide problem that affects virtually everyone — not just farmers, but many small communities with low-income residents who lack safe drinking water, and industries throughout the state.
“What does a society need to function and prosper?” asks Sen. Andreas Borgeas (R-Fresno), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee — the only GOP head of any legislative committee. “The availability of food. Export markets are another important component.
“Look at Orange County: Once agriculture production goes away, it never comes back.
“This is not just about agriculture,” he adds. “It’s about communities and drinking water.”
Senate Republicans would spend $2.6 billion of the surplus on building the $3.9-billion Sites Reservoir in Colusa County. The state has already pledged $836 million and the federal government $80 million.
That amount of state money is probably unrealistic.
But the GOP wants to spend $685 million to repair four water canals in the San Joaquin Valley, including the 444-mile California Aqueduct that carries northern water to Southern California.
These canals have been badly damaged by over-pumping groundwater, mainly by farmers. That has caused the land to sink several feet in some places, badly damaging the canals and reducing their capacity by up to 60%.
Newsom and the Legislature appropriated $200 million last year for repairs — already tampering with the “user pays” concept.
A Democrat, Sen. Melissa Hurtado of Sanger, has a Senate-passed bill that would spend $785 million in general fund money to repair the canals.
So there should be room here for bipartisan deal-making.
If that’s too apolitical for Democratic leaders, they could just grab the idea for themselves. Republicans are used to it.
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