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Jewish Journal

California Quagmire

Elissa D. Barrett and David N. Myers

July 23, 2009 | 2:42 am

Quagmire — a difficult or precarious situation from which extrication is almost impossible.

Juxtapose the progress on health care in Washington — a supposedly unsolvable national dilemma — with our state’s unceasing budget purgatory and one wonders: Is California doomed to an eternal quagmire, or do we have the courage to confront that bogeyman of late 20th/early 21st century American politics — taxation? 

Granted, California now has a budget, but only after multiple gubernatorial vetoes, critical delays caused by the governor’s blind insistence on avoiding new taxes and a legislative gridlock caused by long-term structural deficiencies, some of the public’s own making.

Budgets are about values and priorities. At heart, they are a financial expression of our values. Balancing a budget on the backs of the poor and at the expense of vital social programs represents an ethical choice about the world we want to create for ourselves. Fittingly and fortunately, Jewish history and tradition provide a strong moral compass on the question of communal financial self-regulation. 

The Torah commands the giving of tithes, requiring that offerings of grain, wine, oil, or livestock be made to the Temple before personal consumption. Those who served the community’s spiritual needs (the Levites), as well as the needy, were to be supported first (Deuteronomy 14:28-29). 

A similar ethos is found in the Babylonian Talmud, which describes the critical social services town residents had to provide: a soup kitchen and separate funds for general charity, clothing, burials and repair of the city’s walls. Medieval Jews — Ashkenazic and Sephardic — internalized the principle of collective responsibility in their communities. With respect to taxation, they divided the burden in progressive fashion, with wealthier members paying a greater share than their poorer neighbors. In doing so, they were guided by the ideals of Maimonides, who insisted that a Torah sage should dwell only in a community that provides basic social services for all.

This model of a kehillah kedoshah (a holy community) was not confined to the Middle Ages. Even in modern times — in an era supposedly beset by hyper-individualism and crass materialism — Jews have continued to create their own versions of holy communities. Early 20th century Jewish immigrants established housing co-operatives and fraternal help societies (landsmanshaftn) to share the burdens of resettlement and economic sustenance in America. Once established, they often devoted themselves not only to the well-being of fellow Jews, but also to the quest for equality and justice in the broader society, a commitment we embrace today. 

To be certain, the problems that plague California cannot be solved only by references to our sacred sources or lived history. And yet, the rich legacy of Jewish communal responsibility compels us to ask: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I?” And, if we want California to aspire to be a “holy community,” fit for Maimonides’ hypothetical Torah sage, what choices are we willing to make? What changes in the law and in our lives are we prepared to make to pass an ethical, sustainable budget?

There are many possible answers to these questions, as a number of important recent forums hosted by the Progressive Jewish Alliance, NCJW, Bet Tzedek and Community Coalition have demonstrated. Long-term solutions such as repealing Proposition 13 and overturning term-limit requirements are the thorniest politically, but there are some immediate steps worth exploring.

Close Commercial Property Tax Code Loopholes. Proposition 13 freezes the amount of property-tax proceeds that California can assess, locking us into sales and income taxes as our sole sources of revenue. Prop 13 has had a particularly disparate impact on individual versus corporate property owners. For example, the Los Angeles Times recently cited Disneyland’s property tax rate as $.05 per square foot, compared to $2.06 per square foot for a $330,000 home bought at foreclosure last year. This is because, except in limited circumstances, a corporation can be sold, merge, or sell off its assets to other companies without triggering tax reassessment of its commercial properties. Simple changes in the tax code to close these loopholes could generate massive new revenue.

Repeal New Corporate Tax Breaks. Without public hearings, the legislature added new corporate tax breaks worth $2.5 billion annually to the September 2008 and February 2009 budget agreements. The breaks allow corporations to pay taxes on sales revenues only (excluding property and payroll expenses), to transfer tax credits among related companies, and to claim refunds for taxes they have already paid if they report net operating losses. The dozen companies that gross more than $1 billion per year reap a third of the annual multi-billion dollar tax benefit. Reverse the trend and, in 4 years alone, we could save $10 billion.

Reform California’s Criminal Justice System. Criminal justice reform is first and foremost a moral imperative. It is also a financial imperative we can no longer afford to ignore. According to the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, California could save $12 billion in the next five years by: (1) closing the state’s dysfunctional Division of Juvenile Justice and shifting programs to the county level; (2) prioritizing proven addiction-treatment programs over incarceration for minor drug offenses; (3) converting current death sentences to life without parole and suspending prosecutorial pursuit of the death penalty; and (4) excluding non-violent offenders from Three Strikes penalties.

Prop 13 and term-limits reform, legal loopholes, corporate tax breaks, and criminal justice reform — all call for our serious consideration. In addressing the current crisis, let us seek solutions that draw on the guiding ethos of Jewish communal life. Together, we can realign our priorities to create a future of shared prosperity, a future that brings to life the words of the great Mussar teacher, Rabbi Israel Salanter: “The material well-being of my neighbor is my spiritual concern.”

Elissa D. Barrett is Executive Director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. David N. Myers is Professor of Jewish History at UCLA and a PJA state board member.

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