Ron Kaye: The government credibility gap

A decade after the great California tax rebellion began with passage of Proposition 13 to stop gouging on property taxes, state Assembly Democrats resorted to the tried and true formula for squeezing more money out of the public.

Pick a specific target, guarantee the revenue will be used solely for related programs that provide significant public benefits, build a broad coalition, and warn of dire consequences if it doesn’t win approval.

The specific target chosen in 1989 by Speaker Willie Brown was the gasoline tax. The plan was to double it from nine to 18 cents over four years to provide the bulk of the $18.5 billion for a 10-year program for new streets and highways, mass transit, road repairs and traffic-related environmental programs.

“This is a 10-year plan to put us on the road to the 21st Century,” San Fernando Valley Assemblyman Richard Katz, chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, said at the time. “Without this, our road system will be a nightmare. The average speed in the Bay Area and Los Angeles will be under 10 miles an hour.”

What happened shortly after voters approved the measure was that the economy tanked and what has become a long series of short-term diversions from the transportation fund began. In the last 10 years, they amount to $4.6 billion — half of which hasn’t been paid back.

Tobacco tax hikes for health care are another example of broad public benefits that didn’t materialize as promised.

Lowering the voting threshold from two-thirds to 55% for school and college construction projects has allowed passage of tens of billions of dollars in bond issues — yet controversy and scandals haunt many of the projects.

If ever there was a crisis of faith in our government institutions, it’s now. The Tea Party on the right and the Occupy Wall Street movement on the left agree on one thing: Large corporations work to give the government more power over our lives and the government adopts policies that serve the corporations better than the general public.

Nearly twice as many voters, 71%, believe the voting public is more likely than their elected officials to “consider the broad public interest” about state government and laws, according to a new Field Poll focused on the initiative process.

There was a time when nearly everybody was for raising taxes — as long as somebody else got stuck with the bill.

Now imposing higher taxes, even on other people, even on the super-rich, seems unthinkable.

So how did taxes become such a dirty word?

That’s a question I’ve been posing to government officials for a while now, as we face the consequences of an unending recession combined with political stalemates in Washington and Sacramento.

The answer from everyone is more or less the same: Government has lost credibility with the people.

Long-time Glendale City Manager Jim Starbird recalled that just 18 months ago, a pollster for ballot measures was advising local government officials that despite state government’s low credibility, it was the right time to propose some modest tax increases to deal with their city’s budget problems.

“He said, ‘Your credibility has never been better.’ But what happened within three months is we had the whole Bell scandal break and, boom, we all went in the toilet,” Starbird recalled.

“It was amazing how that situation completely turned the credibility of local government around. And now you have the pension issues that make us all look terrible. The cynicism that was generated in the public is really quite phenomenal."

The challenge for government officials now is to come to terms with what Starbird calls the “new normal” by being able to demonstrate to the public that major steps are being taken to create efficiency and effectiveness in police, fire and other public services, to show that people are getting value for their money.

Then, with proper safeguards and ensuring the community is engaged in monitoring, it might be possible to win voter support for taxes targeted to meet important needs.

“The formula is still the same,” he said. “If you’re going to sell a tax measure to the public, you’ve got to show that whatever you got before, you are spending wisely. People want to see safeguards that will protect whatever they give you in the future will be spent wisely and for what you are telling them it is for.”

RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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