When normal people talk about “freeloaders,” they usually are referring to the assorted welfare dependents, scammers and, yes, public employees who game the system to do as little productive work as possible and receive as many taxpayer-supplied benefits as they can muster. In California, freeloading is an art form, but the term is largely verboten. We don’t want to be accused of insensitivity or other retrograde attitudes, after all.
So I guess we can thank Gov. Jerry Brown for making it OK to speak directly about these folks. During a speech earlier this month in Orange County, the governor made his disgust clear. “The freeloaders — I’ve had enough of them,” he said, according to an Orange County Register report. Brown was there defending a new law he signed that raises fuel taxes by 12 cents to 19 cents a gallon, and annual vehicle-license fees by as much as $180 a vehicle.
I scanned the story without pausing, given how typical it is for Brown to use colorful rhetoric. (This is a governor who refers to critics of his climate-change agenda as “troglodytes,” warns of human extinction, and chides opponents of his $68-billion bullet train as “declinists who want to put their head in a hole….”) But kudos to Kira Davis at the Red State blog for catching the significance of his latest tirade.
“If you live in California, have a job and pay taxes Governor Jerry Brown would like you to know that you’re a freeloader and he’s tired of your complaining,” Davis wrote. This isn’t much of an overstatement. If one looks closely at the rest of the Brown quotation, it’s clear who he’s talking about. “They have a president that doesn’t tell the truth and they’re following suit,” he said, as he criticized activists working to recall a freshman Democratic senator from Fullerton who cast a deciding vote in favor of the recent tax hike.
The recall effort has gotten under the Democratic leadership’s skin, and for good reason: It’s likely to succeed and it will cost Democrats their supermajority in the Senate if it does. Without a supermajority, it’s a tougher process for the majority party to pursue its favorite pastime: raising taxes on the people they view as freeloaders. You know the drill. If California taxpayers and employers get to keep more of our own money, we’re being selfish.
Meanwhile, as I documented in my recent Spectator column, the San Jose police sergeant who, say, grabbed a $552,000 compensation package, Oakland city engineer who quadrupled his salary by racking up $299,000 in overtime last year alone, and six police and fire officials who walked away with $1 million payouts on top of their already generous pensions apparently are heroes devoted to public service. So, too, are the government workers and politicians who have driven the state’s unfunded pension liabilities (i.e., debt) to $1 trillion, based on some credible estimates.
Brown — in his revised May budget released last week — has decided to double the state’s payments to the pension funds to help reduce escalating debt levels. Brown has come up with a clever way to get that extra money. He’s borrowing it at low interest rates from the state’s Surplus Money Investment Fund and pre-paying the pension debt. It’s the same thing that consumers do when they pay off one high-interest credit card with a lower-interest loan.
The goal is to spare benefit recipients any pain, with Brown’s “freeloaders” paying an extra $5.2 billion a year in those new transportation taxes to help keep the absurdly generous pension system afloat. Meanwhile, the governor is proud of the rapid expansion of government-provided benefits, which certainly puts an interesting spin on his Orange County rhetoric.
“As the state’s economy has recovered from the Great Recession, the past four budgets have significantly expanded government spending,” according to the first line in his budget introduction. It points to a rising minimum wage, the “expansion of health care coverage to undocumented children and the millions of Californians covered under the federal Affordable Care Act,” new preventive dental benefits in Medi-Cal and a new “Earned Income Tax Credit.” This year, he hopes to add new child-care benefits to the mix.
The heart of Brown’s road-tax argument is that users aren’t paying enough to maintain them, even though our transportation-tax rates are among the highest in the nation. That argument might work if California’s tax rates were low, its transportation agencies were tolerably efficient, and its welfare programs more modest, but as usual it comes down to Democratic legislative priorities.
Brown and the Legislature always seem to hold infrastructure hostage. They refuse to spend sufficiently on it during the budget process, or to reform a California Department of Transportation filled with waste and excess employees, or turn to outsourcing and other money stretching efforts. Then they spend more money on expanded social programs. Then they blame taxpaying road users for freeloading.
Can you blame people for being ornery?
Tax increases cannot be put to voters via referendum. And Republicans have little chance to make serious gains in the Legislature or to grab any statewide constitutional offices. But even a lot of Democratic voters are griping about the gas-tax increase. It’s not 2003, when voters recalled Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and replaced him with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the mood is the closest I’ve seen to those days.
Former San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio, a Republican, is leading what he calls a “gazelle strategy.” Newman is a Democrat in a district that still has substantial GOP voting power. “Lions don’t attack every gazelle,” he said, in my Register column. “They attack the one that’s slowest and weakest and they work together, as a team, and share the meal.” The GOP lions (OK, they usually are like skittish housecats) want to pick off Newman, target others, and scare the Democrats into voluntarily repealing the tax.
DeMaio is an old pro who doesn’t waste his time on fantasies. Newman probably is toast, despite Brown’s visit to the district, the Democratic leadership’s support, and past support from Barack Obama. Picking off others and repealing the tax increase may be wishful thinking, but it’s worth a try. Donald Trump pulled off a longshot win by banking on a “basket of deplorables,” so DeMaio might succeed by depending on California’s so-called freeloaders.
Steven Greenhut is a Sacramento based columnist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.