How did California go from an enormous surplus to an enormous deficit? It elected Gray Davis, who jacked up spending 32%, bankrupted energy utilities through price caps and power-plant-blocking environmentalism, and used the state government as a personal piggy bank.
Democrat Kathleen Connell, the state's controller, noted last year that Davis's gross incompetence and "panic" during the energy crisis would saddle Californians with debts for years to come.
Now Davis is panicking again. In the face of a ballooning $23.6-billion deficit, he is calling on Californians to pay for his profligacy through higher auto and cigarette taxes. This, of course, blatantly violates his I-don't-envision-any-new-taxes promise from earlier this year. But no matter: the goal in his mind is not to offend the tax-guzzling beneficiaries of big government -- teachers, bureaucrats, minority activists -- who form the base of his party.
To curb the deficit without raising taxes would have required deep cuts in public school education -- the trench from which Davis recruits many of his shock troops.
Davis's proposed new budget, however, is hard cheese on the poor. It would, among other things, reduce funding for juvenile delinquent programs, cut Medi-Cal, and freeze cost-of-living increases for welfare recipients.
But so what? figures Davis. The poor don't even vote. A few liberal lions, such as Senate Leader John Burton from San Francisco (who wants to raise taxes on the rich, though they pay 70% of the state's revenues) may object, but their protests will fall away as November approaches.
Teeing off the state's public school educrats is another matter altogether. Davis' clumsy and crass request for a million dollars from the California Teachers' Association, even as he undercut the group's collective-bargaining legislation, still rankles. So now Davis is deep in public-school pander mode.
"I had to find other ways to close this (budget) gap. I'm not going to sacrifice the future of our children, particularly in public education. Without some revenue increases, I would have had to do that," said Davis, relying on the fallacy that higher spending equals higher student achievement.
If Davis wanted to protect the future of California's children and its public treasury, he would endorse vouchers to take stress off the overcrowded public school system and expose children to better education. But for Davis the commonweal is a secondary concern to his re-election.
Given the swelling surplus with which he started, Davis should be returning tax dollars, not asking for more of them. Members of his party even have the gall to describe this self-serving solution to his self-inflicted crisis as courageous. Apparently it counts as courage for them to waste other people's money, then demand even more of it.
"In an election year, for him to make these very tough recommendations on the cuts side but also the revenue side, (is) a testament to his responsibility and strength," said Assemblywoman Jenny Oropeza to the Los Angeles Times.
Yes, it takes great courage to propose a tax increase not effective until about two months after the election. Davis's auto tax hike would not kick in until January 1, 2003. Is it also a profile in courage for Davis to stick a reviled state minority -- smokers, many of whom are lower middle-class -- with some of the bill for his mismanagement of the state?
"It's fundamentally unfair to single out smokers to balance the state budget," Philip Morris spokesman Tom Ryan said to the Los Angeles Times. "The taxes on cigarettes are already the highest of any consumer product. It's bad public policy. This is a tax directed at roughly 20% of the population. A good tax, a fair tax, is evenly spread out throughout the population."
Not for Davis. The tax game for him is to find Californians who will never vote for him to pay for the pet programs of the Democrats who will.
Had Davis focused less on his growing campaign funds and more on the growing deficit, Californians would face no shortfall at all.