From Golden State to Third World Nation

As Sacramento prepares to inaugurate Governor-elect Jerry Brown next month, much of the focus has been on the state’s looming budget deficit and how the legislature and Brown plan to bridge that gap.

For years now, Californians have been told that we must choose between cutting public services and public service employees or budget armageddon.

However, this is a false choice that has been driven more by political rhetoric than economic reality, as the Wall Street Journal has observed.

What we must bear in mind, instead, is that there is a direct relationship between California’s quality of life and the quality of its public services and the people who provide those services.

Imagine being unable to take a walk in a park on a sunny afternoon or being unable to borrow books from the library or to hang a picture drawn by your child at school on the refrigerator.

Imagine traversing potholed roadways or waiting hours to catch a train or bus home after work or telling your children that you can’t afford to send them to college.

For the majority of Californians who have to work for a living, this erosion in our quality of life is already happening.

It is the tragic result of the breakdown of our public service structures, the despoiling of our common wealth, and the shredding of the social contract by self-interested parties opposed to the very American notion of equal opportunity and a fair deal.

Polls consistently show that a majority of voters support funding for parks, libraries, schools, reliable roads and transit systems, health care, child care, and environmental protection.

As stewards of these sources of our common wealth, public service employees are necessarily more highly educated, more highly skilled, and more highly experienced.

That is why proposals aimed at slashing public services to balance the budget are self-defeating.

Doing so will further despoil our quality of life.

In fact, many economists say that diminishing public service jobs and benefits will retard California’s economic recovery and increase unemployment.

These are unacceptable outcomes.

At this time of economic turmoil, we must find the courage to confront the root cause of our state’s structural budget deficit.

Over the past forty years, state revenues have been in decline, while the state’s expenses have increased.

Interestingly, this development mirrors the predicament that a majority of California residents have experienced over the same time period as their personal incomes have dropped while the cost of living has soared.

In the face of such a situation, many California families have tried to increase their incomes by looking for higher paying jobs or by working two or more jobs.

Many families have also borrowed money to prop up their living standards.

Others have tried to cut back on their expenses only to realize that doing so would require them to live in squalor or to accept a standard of living inferior to that of their parents’ generation.

Like many of its residents, the Golden State has also engaged in a similar series of stop gap measures.

Under Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state borrowed extraordinary sums of money to pay its bills.

Schwarzenegger and the Republicans have also forced the state to make drastic cuts to its public service budget, reducing many California communities to Third World conditions.

The only thing California has failed to do is to find ways to make more money to meet its obligations.

Fortunately, there are several ways for the state to do this without raising taxes.

One way is for California to close the loopholes in its tax code and to require stricter oversight of all the state’s tax subsidy programs like the failed enterprise zone program to ensure that our tax dollars are spent wisely.

We should also repeal those tax breaks recently handed out to Comcast, Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche, and Hollywood film studios for the ostensible purpose of creating jobs.

This is because these companies have done nothing but ship more jobs out of California and lay off more people.

According to an article by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Washington correspondent Carolyn Lochhead, closing California’s tax loopholes would result in annual budget surpluses for some time to come.

If the free market is really as ideal a mechanism for creating wealth as its supporters claim, then why must taxpayers subsidize the operations of private sector companies?

In fact, since the private sector has so far been unwilling or unable to produce the kinds of jobs we need to pull California out of recession, that is all the more reason to be vigilant with our tax dollars.

The state should also stop paying private contractors more than $34 billion a year to do jobs that civil servants can perform for roughly half the cost.

A 2009 analysis by the State Compensation Insurance Fund and California Research Bureau found that it generally costs the state 50 percent more to hire private contractors than to have state employees perform the same work.

Finally, since most of our tax dollars over the past two years have been spent on unpopular bailouts of the banks and financial institutions that caused the Great Recession we are all living through, this means that the budget deficits we’ve incurred at the federal and state level were brought on by Wall Street.

California should, therefore, institute a surcharge on financial service transactions like stock trades to make sure that Wall Street, not Main Street, bears the cost of cleaning up this economic mess.

Going forward, we must be steady in our commitment to maintaining a high quality of life through quality public services provided by highly skilled, educated, and experienced civil servants while repudiating austerity measures that will transform greater swaths of the Golden State into a Third World nation.

WILLIE L. PELOTE, Sr./strong>. is an Assistant Director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), AFL-CIO. He can be contacted at: wpelote@afscme.org



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