L.A. Needs Jobs, Not Tax Hikes, to Fight Poverty, Homelessness

 

homelessIn 2007, about a year before the economy crashed, the Gallup Poll found that 28 percent of Americans had at some point worried about becoming homeless.

It’s worse today. A new UCLA study found 31 percent of county residents worried about becoming homeless. Even among people earning between $90,000 and $120,000, 1 in 4 were afraid they would one day live on the street.

The fear is a symptom of a stagnant economy. If people felt confident that they would always be able to find a job, some kind of job to pay the bills, everybody would be sleeping better at night. Instead, there is widespread anxiety that unemployment could be imminent, devastating and at an ever-younger age, permanent.

When economic stagnation is the problem, a tax increase is not the solution. Higher taxes drain away resources needed for growth and job creation. Beleaguered businesses shrink, close or leave. Poverty spreads like water on a marble floor.

So it’s particularly depressing to see the city and county of Los Angeles plotting to raise taxes in the name of helping the homeless.

Mayor Eric Garcetti’s proposed $8.75 billion budget includes a pledge of $138 million to help get homeless people into affordable housing, but the future of Garcetti’s 10-year, $2 billion plan to house the homeless depends on persuading voters to approve a higher sales tax, more borrowing, or a new transfer tax on real estate transactions. None of those proposals reached 50 percent approval in a recent poll conducted for the city. They’d need a two-thirds vote to pass.

L.A. County’s proposed budget would spend $100 million to help the homeless, about one-fifth of what county officials say is needed. A poll on how to pay for it found 76 percent support for a half-percent tax increase on income over $1 million, about 67 percent support for a half-percent increase in the sales tax or a 15 percent sales tax on marijuana, and 47 percent approval for a $49 parcel tax added to property tax bills.

But can the problem of homelessness be solved with higher taxes?

There is reason to doubt it.

The Skid Row Housing Trust recently opened an affordable housing development to serve homeless veterans. “The Six” provides 52 units of permanent supportive housing, but it cost $16.7 million, about $321,000 per unit.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority says 46,874 people in L.A. County are without a roof over their heads. To house each of them in a place like “The Six” would cost $15 billion.

Suppose we paid it. Would Los Angeles then be free of homeless encampments? Would the sidewalks be clear for pedestrians? Would red lights be just red lights, and not a 30-second Dickens novel?

Not likely, thanks to the federal courts.

In 2003, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city of Los Angeles over enforcement of a section of the city code that allowed police to arrest people for sleeping on the street. The city lost. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Constitution “prohibits the city from punishing involuntary sitting, lying or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles.”

The courts have also protected panhandling, calling it a First Amendment right. Last year, cities in Maine and Illinois were told they could not ban panhandling on the medians at intersections or in a busy downtown area.

So Los Angeles taxpayers could spend twice the city’s annual budget on housing the homeless and still have no legal way to stop a new wave of people from replacing them on the streets.

Homelessness is not one problem and it doesn’t have one solution, unless you’re a politician searching through polling data for a way to get voters to support another tax increase. Nobody likes homeless encampments? Bingo!

What’s needed in Los Angeles is a comprehensive effort to improve the business climate so people can find good jobs or run small businesses profitably. Every government policy that burdens businesses or consumers with higher costs reduces hiring, deepens poverty and puts more people at risk of living in vehicles, shelters or tents.

Sadly, our elected officials think of businesses not as engines of economic well-being, but as cash registers to be robbed by government do-gooders. They would rather have their picture taken in a homeless shelter than get out of the way and let people earn a living.

That should keep everybody up at night.

New Sales Tax Hike for Transit Doesn’t Add Up for Taxpayers

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image18514272Math is a funny thing.

Take averaging, for example. Mark Twain observed that if you have one foot in a bucket of ice and one foot in a bucket of boiling water, on average you’re pretty comfortable.

Similarly, consider subtraction. Somehow, government officials have calculated that subtracting money from your wallet for taxes actually puts more money in your pocket.

That’s the conclusion of a recent study of the economic effects of Measure R, the 2008 increase in the L.A. County sales tax of one-half of one percent to fund transportation projects.

The Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation determined that over its 30-year lifespan, the Measure R sales tax will create $80.7 billion in economic output while costing each resident just $25 a year in higher taxes.

The Society of American Magicians prohibits them from revealing how this trick is done, but they can’t stop me from exposing the secret.

It’s done with mirrors. A typical dollar spent by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) is counted three times: once when Metro hands it to a contractor, once when the contractor hands it to a union construction worker, and once when the worker spends it on rent, food, car payments or entertainment. They call these reflections the “direct,” “indirect” and “induced” effects of spending.

This “multiplier effect” would work if the money spent by Metro was earned by Metro. But it’s not. It’s earned by you, and then taken from you with a higher sales tax.

The study uses another trick, division, to determine that this higher tax costs each resident only $25 per year. Using multiplication instead, the 30-year cost of Measure R comes out to $3,000 for a family of four.

Figured another way, if the 10 million residents of L.A. County didn’t have to pay that $25 per year in extra taxes, they would have an extra $250 million annually, $7.5 billion over 30 years, to spend on whatever they personally find useful. Add the multiplier effect to those numbers, without government middlemen, for a true picture of what’s lost to higher taxes.

Now Metro wants taxpayers to cough up another $120 billion for more transit projects. The money would come from adding more years to the 30-year Measure R tax and hiking the sales tax by another half-cent per dollar, raising L.A. County’s sales tax rate to 9.5 percent for 40 years.

The transit agency would then borrow against the future sales tax revenues to start spending the $120 billion immediately.

Just how much is $120 billion?

It’s enough to pay for the repairs and deferred maintenance of every freeway in California for the next 10 years, twice.

It’s enough to build 120 desalinization plants like the one in Carlsbad that’s supplying 7 percent of San Diego’s water.

It’s enough to pay off the student debt of everyone who was enrolled in a four-year college or university in California in 2014. Seven times.

But Metro wants to spend $120 billion on a long list of public transit projects, even though ridership on public transit is declining. Metro boardings are down 10 percent since 2006 despite $9 billion of spending on rail.

Metro CEO Philip Washington says ridership will increase when the system is fully built out. “We’re not building for today,” he said recently, “We’re building for 100 years down the road.”

A hundred years ago, a telephone looked like a black candlestick. It didn’t have GPS or a camera. It didn’t have a keypad, or a dial, or Angry Birds. It didn’t even have a ringtone unless you count the bell in the box on the wall.

If the people of 1916 had designed a communications system for “100 years down the road” and racked up $120 billion in debt to pay for it, we’d still be paying taxes for something that was long gone; and we’d be wondering why our taxes are so high, and why there’s never enough money for road repair or water projects or education.

That’s what happens when governments run up too much debt, as ours already have—local, state and federal alike.

Multiply that by your children’s future, and then by your grandchildren’s future.

And when you see Metro’s sales tax increase for transit projects on your November ballot, don’t get taken for a ride.

Will New Initiative Add to Current Crime Problem?

Photo credit: Michael Coghlan via Flickr

Photo credit: Michael Coghlan via Flickr

At about the same time Gov. Jerry Brown was explaining his new initiative to reform the determinate sentencing law, Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell was telling Town Hall Los Angeles that law enforcement was facing a losing battle with crime. The sheriff argued that ballot measures back to Proposition 36 in 2000 easing drug punishment through Proposition 47 voiding prison for some felonies and AB109 prison realignment have led to increased crime.

Will Brown’s new initiative proposal add to the crime problem by making it easier for non-violent offenders to gain parole?

Sen. Jim Nielsen thinks so. He stated in a press release: “Violent and property crimes have increased in cities across the state from Sacramento to Los Angeles. Weakening the criminal justice system will only increase the victimization of California citizens.”

Nielsen laid the fault in the crime increase at Proposition 47, which reduced many felonies and misdemeanors, allowing arrestees to escape the threat of prison.

Sheriff McDonnell said he supported the spirit of what Prop. 47 was trying to do but fixes are needed because it is not working. Prior to Prop. 47, a criminal arrested for stealing goods valued less than $950, or on certain drug charges, faced either time in jail or a treatment program. McDonnell said the leverage of jail time no longer exists. People know they won’t get locked up for a theft under $950, he said.

The sheriff said the AB109 prison re-alignment law put state prison inmates in county jails, which are not equipped to handle them. Jails are intended to house people pre-trial, not to house long-term prisoners, McDonnell said. One state prisoner shifted to the L.A. county jail is serving a 42-year term.

The realignment program was designed to free up space in state prisons. Brown’s proposed initiative would further that goal by giving judges and parole boards more discretion.

Allowing judges to judge specific circumstances and mete out appropriate justice is a common sense philosophy.

But at what cost to public safety?

While McDonnell said it wasn’t his intention to bash Prop. 47, he noted that crime in the county was up 11.2 percent over the last year with 40 percent of those freed under Prop. 47 re-arrested. One individual has been re-arrested 22 times.

McDonnell said he wanted to work with Prop. 47 supporters to meet the goals of the initiative while at the same time adding fixes that return incentive and disincentives for individuals to obey the law.

One Prop. 47 supporter who listened to the sheriff speak was Tom Hoffman, a long time law enforcement official who serves as a Senior Public Safety Adviser for the non-profit Californians for Safety and Justice, an organization that advocated for Proposition 47.

Hoffman took exception to the sheriff putting responsibility of increased crime on Prop. 47. Hoffman said crime statistics all across the country have gone up about the same rate as in California.

Given reports of increased crime issued by the police and a recent spike in gun sales, it can be assumed citizens of California feel less safe. Yet, the governor’s initiative is counting on a changed attitude toward crime and punishment as indicated by the passage of Proposition 47 and the Three Strike law reform.

A couple of months ago I wrote that a spike in crime could bring back the rise of politicians like former Gov. George Deukmejian who rode a tough-on-crime image to high state offices. If the Brown gambit adds to the perception that crime is increasing because of government actions there likely could be a political push-back.