If Only the Legislature Could Tax Self-Congratulation

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)

If I’d been graded in college like the state legislature is being graded today, I would have graduated summa cum laude. (I barely graduated cum laude, and only then with some ‘90s era grade inflation).

The end of the legislative session occasioned an orgy of self-congratulation, and many overly positive views of the performance of state legislators.

We were told that they had done many big things. What were those, Californians might ask?

Well the case for a triumphant legislature involves the tax hike to pay for road repairs, the renewal of the cap-and-trade program, and a package of housing bills, including a dedicated revenue stream for affordable housing. And that list is revealing—because it shows the difference between political reality and the state in which we actually live.

In the context of Sacramento, each of the measures were heavy lifts, and thus represent real political achievements. The transportation tax, cap and trade, and revenue for housing all required 2/3 votes, after all.

But practically, none of the three measures makes much impact.

The gas tax increase that was passed is small, and the repairs it will pay for on the roads represents only a tiny fraction of state needs.

Cap and trade merely extends a program that was already in place—that’s significant, but hardly earth-shattering.

And the housing changes, while novel politically, are unlikely to have any measurable impact on the state’s housing crisis. That would require far more dramatic changes in state law and regulation, and the state’s system of local government.

I understand the temptation to praise the legislature. Lawmakers routinely get blamed unfairly for California failings that are systemic, and that are the product of laws and constitutional amendments approved by the voters themselves. California has a highly educated and representative legislature – very probably the best in the country. It would be nice to correct the record with high praise.

But the praise is wrongheaded. It’s likely to raise expectations that lawmakers can’t meet. Because the real story is just how little power the legislature, and our local elected officials, really have.

The real way to react to the legislative session is to acknowledge lawmakers’ hard work, while lamenting the fact that even a good legislature can’t make the changes and investments of the scale that California needs.

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