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February 26, 2004

Vote No on 57, 58: They Erode Duty

http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/vote_no_on_57_58_they_erode_duty_20040227

One of the central tenets of our Jewish political and ethical tradition is that cities and states are communities of obligation. Citizenship in these communities is defined by responsibility, and the most basic responsibility is to care for the neediest among us. Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas articulated this same fundamental truth in the concept of "humanist urbanism."

Unfortunately, over the past quarter century, this core value has been eroded in California -- dating from the abdication of communal responsibility embodied in the 1978 passage of Proposition 13. Because they continue and exacerbate this pernicious trend, Propositions 57 and 58 on the March 2 state ballot deserve to be defeated. However, two other ballot measures -- Propositions 55 and 56 -- merit the Jewish community's wholehearted support.

Proposition 57, which seeks authorization for a $15 billion bond to pay off the state's accumulated General Fund deficit as of June 30, 2004, violates California's constitutional requirement that bonded indebtedness be incurred only for a "single object or work" -- such as the educational facilities whose repair and restoration is provided for in Proposition 55. Even worse, repayment of this enormous bond will be based upon one-quarter cent of the state sales tax -- the most regressive form of governmental taxation.

More fundamentally, since this proposed bond will take between nine and 14 years to repay, Proposition 57 simply passes the burden for current spending onto future generations and raises the overall debt burden beyond what is fiscally prudent, costing an average family more than $2,000. This is akin to taking out a second home mortgage in order to pay monthly living expenses.

Balancing the state's budget on the backs of society's weakest segments is also unethical. During their administrations, both Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson raised income taxes on the state's highest earners. We would have expected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to do likewise -- as well as to abrogate his unilateral reduction of the existing vehicle license fee -- in order to ease the current economic crisis, and thereby protect education and social services.

Increased taxes on alcohol and tobacco products should also have been given careful consideration. Instead, the governor (with the Legislature's complicity) opted to evade responsible action in the present and risk having the neediest disproportionately shoulder an enormous future burden.

Proposition 58, whose fate is tied directly to Proposition 57's adoption, purports to require the enactment of a balanced state budget. However, it in fact permits short-term borrowing to be used to balance an unbalanced budget, thereby undermining this measure's avowed goal of ensuring that a balanced budget will actually be enacted and implemented.

Moreover, although Proposition 58 purports to prohibit all future deficit-financing bonds, it cynically exempts the $15 billion bond called for by Proposition 57. To do so, Proposition 58 temporarily repeals existing provisions of the California Constitution that prevent the issuance of such a bond.

By contrast, Proposition 55 presents the archetypal purpose for incurring bonded indebtedness. Safe, modern and uncrowded schools are vital to the educational achievement of our children -- a core Jewish value. Proposition 55 authorizes the state to sell $12.3 billion in general obligation bonds for the construction and renovation of K-12, as well as higher-education, facilities. Especially important, this measure makes a total of $2.44 billion available for use by districts with schools that are considered critically overcrowded.

Proposition 55's strict accountability requirements should ensure that these funds are spent only on school rehabilitation and building costs, and these bonds will not raise taxes. Even the conservative California Taxpayers Association believes that Proposition 55 is a fiscally responsible way to finance school repairs and construction. The California Chamber of Commerce likewise supports Proposition 55 because it invests in our economy and in our future work force.

Finally, past experience proves that state budgetary gridlock harms those who are most vulnerable -- the poor, the sick, the disabled, children and the elderly. To avoid the recurrence of this phenomenon, Proposition 56 permits the Legislature to enact budget and budget-related tax appropriation bills with a 55 percent vote, rather than the two-thirds majority vote currently needed.

A 55 percent vote still requires a larger majority to pass our budget than 47 other states and the federal government. Arkansas and Rhode Island are the only other states that currently require a two-thirds vote to pass a budget.

Because Proposition 56 further mandates that the Legislature and governor permanently forfeit their salaries, per diem allowances and expense reimbursement for each day the budget is late, accountability is assured and the likelihood of partisan gridlock significantly minimized. Proposition 56 also has broad support from a wide array of education, health, public safety, disability rights, environmental protection, religion, business, labor and community groups.

Douglas Mirell is the immediate past president of the Progressive Jewish Alliance and currently chairs its executive committee. He may be contacted at dmirell@pjalliance.org .

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