It has been argued that California’s voters defy their political stereotype when it comes to taxes. California’s property tax revolt in 1978 resulted in the passage of the historic Prop. 13, which limits property tax increases to 2% per year. As recently as 2009, California’s legislature joined with Gov. Schwarzenegger to place Propositions 1A through 1E on the state ballot. All of them would have raised taxes, and all of them were defeated by voters.
That was then.
In 2012 Californians voted to raise sales and income taxes through Proposition 30, which supposedly was designed to collect an additional $6 billion per year to fund public education. And while 2014 did not include major new tax proposals on the state ballot, in cities, counties and school districts throughout California, tax and bond proposals were placed before voters. Most of them passed.
In the June 2014 primary, 47 local bond measures were proposed, with 36 of them passing. Also in June, 44 local tax increases were proposed, and 36 of them passed. That was just a warm-up for the November 2014 election, where 118 local bonds – most of them for public education – were proposed, along with a staggering 171 local tax increases. At last count, 72 of the bond proposals were passed, 15 were defeated, and 31 remain too close to call. Of the 171 local tax proposals, 98 were passed, 45 were defeated, and 28 are still too close to call.
These local tax proposals are necessary to meet runaway employee compensation costs, especially for pensions. These local bond measures are largely to fund deferred maintenance, activities that might have been funded through operations budgets if it weren’t for excessive compensation and benefit costs.
In Stanton, a city where local firefighters average $221,000 per year in pay and benefits, and local sheriffs average $112,000 per year in pay and benefits, a 1% increase to the local sales tax was approved by 54% of the voters. In Palo Alto, where the local firefighters “only” receive pay and benefits that average $181,000 per year, and the local police officers earn pay and benefits averaging $164,000 per year, a 2% increase in their hotel tax was approved by 75% of voters.
In California in 2014, based on returns so far, if a local city or county wants to raise taxes, there is a 72% chance voters will approve them. If a school district wants to borrow money – over $11 billion just this November – there is an 81% chance voters will approve them. And if the proponents of more taxes and borrowing are unlucky, they can always try again the next election. The odds are in their favor.
Local taxes and borrowing matter. California has relatively decentralized governance. Of the roughly $430 billion in estimated state and local spending in California for the fiscal year ending 6-30-2015, only $107 billion of that is state government spending. Estimating total state and local government debt in California is nearly impossible because the largest single borrower, K-12 school districts, have not submitted their financials to the State Controller for consolidation since 2002. But a California Policy Center study from April 2013 estimated total state debt from all sources at $132 billion, whereas the same study estimated total local government debt in California at over $250 billion. That estimate relied on 2011 and 2012 data, grossly underestimated K-12 bond debt, and did not include any unfunded liabilities for pension and retirement healthcare.
When it comes to taxes, borrowing, and overspending, most of the action in California is at the local level. And there should be no question that current spending levels are financially unsustainable. If all California’s state and local pension systems had to do was account for their liabilities according to the same rules that have governed private sector pension plans for years, California’s state and local debt – including unfunded liabilities – would be well over $1.0 trillion. Moreover, such reforms – playing by the same rules as the private sector – would grossly increase the ongoing normal cost to funding pensions for state and local government employees.
Sooner or later California’s taxpayers are going to wake up. Because the Government Accounting Standards Board, Moody’s Investor Services, and eventually the U.S. Congress, are being compelled by financial reality to enact reforms to pension and retirement healthcare accounting, asset management, and funding. Once government entities have to follow the same rules as the private sector, spending will skyrocket or services will be scuttled. What we’ve seen so far, grievous though it may be, is nothing compared to what is to come.
There is an alternative. A bipartisan will to defeat government unions by an awakened populace. It may take a few more years, but it is inevitable – the hidden agenda behind all of these tax increases and new borrowings will be plain for all to see.