Cool! Our Own Boston Tea Party!

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

You don’t want to make the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors mad. You really don’t. The supes have incredible power–they’re both the legislative and executive branch of government for a county of more than 10 million people. And there are only five of them. Do the math. Yep, those are districts of two million people each. That’s power that puts a mere congressman or state senator to shame. An incumbent supe loses a seat about as often as Halley’s Comet swings by the earth.

But oh, you state government. You’ve gone and done it. You’ve made the supes mad. And now you’re going to pay. Well, more precisely, you’re not going to get paid. Maybe. The county supes are so disgusted at the state government’s fiscal mess — and the legislature and governor’s delay in solving it — that they’re threatening to withhold tax payments to the state. It’s only fair–the state is refusing to pay its bills, and the delays already have cost the county more than $100 million.

Is it legal for the county to withhold payments, you ask? No. Is it practical? Probably not, since most taxes are collected by the state directly. But property tax receipts go through the county. Can they do it? Of course they can. Who’s going to stop them? The state of California? Ha! What’s Arnold gonna do–send the National Guard into the Hall of Administration?

Supervisor Gloria Molina is promising “our own Boston tea party.”

Pardon me while I assemble my costume.

The state of California and its governing system is at risk of unraveling, right now. Folks in Sacramento seem to be behaving as though they have time to work out a budget agreement. The latest reason for delay is to see how much money California receives once the federal stimulus package is passed. (State politicians don’t want to take a tough budget vote and then learn the feds would have let them off the hook). I’m hearing talk about a resolution “this spring.” Some elected officials seem to be waiting for intervention — by the courts, by the feds, by the bond holders. We can’t afford to wait. With the state unable to do what it’s supposed to, all sorts of government agencies, cities and counties are going to do all sorts of strange things. And here’s one fearless prediction: in this climate, with the state refusing to pay bills and the largest county in the state threatening to withhold tax payments, look for a grass roots movement of citizens who refuse to pay any state or local taxes.

It’s time for the state’s leaders to stop talking and pass a budget plan. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Today. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t even have to be any good or make much sense. But it has to happen. Now.

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