“Never give the bastards more money,” a friend always says when discussing proposed tax increases. “They’ll only squander it.” That also epitomizes my philosophy over decades of voting and writing about ballot initiatives and bonds. I always recommend a “no” vote, even if the proposal would fund legitimate and badly needed infrastructure projects — and especially if tax supporters hysterically predict the end of civilization if the measure fails.
California voters almost always ignore such advice. Few people track the spending priorities of government officials after voters grant them the cash. After the Santa Ana Unified School District convinced residents to pass a bond to upgrade its overcrowded schools, the board immediately approved a “project labor agreement” that gave union contractors a monopoly over construction. That squandered 10 percent to 20 percent of the budget for nothing (other than winning union favor), and the district could only upgrade five of the 13 promised schools. It’s sadly typical.
My favorite local example involved the Orange County Mosquito and Vector Control District, which scared the heck out of residents about West Nile virus and an encroaching menace: the red imported fire ant. Such pests could be handled by, say, calling an exterminator if you found a nest in your backyard. Instead, voters gave the district more money. Its main priority after the increase was to increase its workers’ pensions by 62 percent. A few years later, the agency tried to spend from $1 million to $10 million hatching a mosquito museum.
It’s even worse at the state level, of course. In 2017, California lawmakers decided to finally do something about the state’s overburdened infrastructure of roads, freeways, and bridges. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown muscled the Legislature into passing increases in gas and diesel taxes and a significant boost in vehicle-license fees. Brown had a nasty habit of holding transportation funding hostage during budget negotiations. To most of us, roads should be at the top of a state’s funding priorities, but instead Democratic officials prefer to ignore them — and then claim that there wasn’t enough money to expand capacity without a tax hike.
The Legislature passed Senate Bill 1 to boost taxes to pay for such funding, as poor road conditions had been stirring up a public furor. Frustrated conservatives warned that there was plenty of money in the state’s record-setting budget to finance infrastructure projects without new taxes. They qualified a referendum, Proposition 6, on the November ballot to try to overturn the law. The state’s political establishment, labor unions, and business groups went ballistic.
“Emergency responders see firsthand the safety risk to drivers caused by crumbling roads, structurally unsafe bridges and outdated infrastructure,” said the state’s director of emergency services in his statement opposing the repeal. “By stopping thousands of transportation improvement projects, Prop. 6 will make our roads, bridges and transportation system less safe and lead to more traffic accidents and fatalities.” Tax supporters went for the low road: they featured public safety officials in ads and claimed that people would die if the tax were repealed.
The tax-hikers never mentioned that people already are dying on the state’s freeways because the Legislature has for years refused to expand road capacity even as it shovels money toward new social programs and pay packages for public employees. To further stack the deck, the state attorney general wrote a ballot title and summary that didn’t clearly mention that this was a tax rollback: “Eliminates Recently Enacted Road Repair and Transportation Funding by Repealing Revenues Dedicated for those Purposes.” Voters, concerned about bad roadways, gave in to the arm-twisting and rejected the referendum on a 57 percent to 43 percent vote.
The gas tax was sold as a means to fix and expand freeways, but S.B. 1’s fine print gave state officials much latitude to spend the money in other ways. Voters should have known better but, hey, this is California. Voters’ own culpability didn’t stop them from getting angry after Gov. Gavin Newsom last month signed an executive order diverting road funds to his pet rail projects.
Newsom’s order, coinciding with his talk at the Climate Week summit in New York, promised to “reduce congestion through innovative strategies designed to encourage people to shift from cars to other modes of transportation” and “fund transportation options that contribute to the overall health of Californians and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as transit, walking, biking and other active modes.” People may die, after all, but not because they were too stingy with their tax dollars.
As the Los Angeles Times’ George Skelton explained, the executive order was followed by a California Department of Transportation directive to delete $61.3 million in funding for three major road projects in the Central Coast and Central Valley. The bureaucrats, he reported, specifically justified shifting the funds to rail projects to bring them in alignment with the executive order. “When you pay for gas and you pay a gas tax, a railroad is not a highway,” fumed Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, whose district is losing funding for an upgrade to the nightmarish Highway 99. “This is bait and switch.”
It’s not unexpected. “Conservative observers in California have, over the last two decades, implored voters not to trust the current political establishment,” wrote Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. Even the Times columnist warned that bait-and-switches breed “cynicism and mistrust of government.” Not to pick nits, but people should always mistrust their government.
Since the tax passed, local governments have been using the new tax proceeds to reduce the number of road lanes, in a social-engineering project known as “road diets.” As I wrote for The American Spectator, “In Sacramento, road officials removed lanes from downtown streets and replaced them with wider bike lanes. Other cities have done the same. Instead of having quicker commuters, we’re facing rush-hour gridlock. Don’t worry, though, officials are doing this to make us safer.”
The Congestion Lobby argues that expanding freeways only entices more people to use them, so we might as well stop building freeways anyway. They refer to this concept as “induced demand,” but it’s really about pent-up demand because of the state’s failure to keep up with its road-building responsibilities. That demand situation could be remedied with a sane pricing policy, but environmentalists, urbanists, and the state’s political leaders will use any excuse to coerce us out of our cars and into their grimy bum trains.
There’s not much we can do, but it’s a good reminder of my friend’s advice. Don’t vote for a bond measure or a tax increase until the state has more trustworthy leadership. That means you can safely vote “no” for the rest of your lifetime.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at email@example.com.