State job-creation incentives fail to produce desired results

JobsIn February 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration unveiled an Economic Development Initiative to replace an enterprise zone program that had fallen out of favor after nearly three decades. Enterprise zones offered tax incentives to promote the starting of businesses in areas with high unemployment, but many analyses concluded they didn’t have a substantial positive effect. Now a centerpiece of Brown’s replacement initiative is offering up similar mixed-to-poor results.

The California Competes program was initially billed as providing $180 million through the end of fiscal 2014-15 for tax credits to lure businesses to the Golden State or to keep them from leaving. As the Sacramento Bee reported at the time, emergency regulations were hastened into place to get the program up and running.

Panorea Avdis, the chief deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, justified the move in a memo obtained by the Bee: “This program must go into effect immediately to help minimize the migration of business to other states and to encourage growth and expansion in this state.”

Four and a half years later, the sense of urgency among Brown aides about getting California Competes started is hard to square with its disappointing results. A recent Legislative Analyst’s Office report offered many criticisms:

– Slightly more than a third of awarded credits – 35 percent – went to companies that primarily competed with other California businesses, meaning the credits create no additional economic activity, lead to an unfair competitive advantage for firms getting the credits and consume state resources that could have been use for constructive purposes.

– There were no metrics to judge the effectiveness of the remaining 65 percent of credits, which went to companies that sold goods or services both in California and out.

– The size of the hiring and investment commitments the companies made per $100,000 of tax credits has declined steadily in recent years, reflecting a lack of enthusiasm about the value of the credits.

– The interest in the program had waned among small businesses, which had 25 percent of available annual tax credits set aside for their use. The LAO noted that in the last fiscal year – 2016-17 – only 49 percent of the credits were awarded, or about $30 million.

LAO says close program, but role in Amazon bid may provide cover

“The executive branch has made a good-faith effort to implement California Competes, but the problems described above are largely unavoidable,” the LAO wrote. “We recommend that the Legislature end California Competes. In general, broad‑based tax relief – for all businesses – is preferable to targeted tax incentives.”

Because the program loses its authority to grant tax credits at the end of fiscal 2017-18, the LAO report may shape the Legislature’s and the Brown administration’s decision on what to do about California Competes. The LAO says if the program is retained, its eligibility rules should be tightened up and other provisions should be revised to make it more likely the credits go to companies facing competition from rival firms in other states.

But at least until Amazon makes its decision on where to locate its second North American headquarters, the LAO’s call to shut down California Competes is unlikely to be heeded. In October, some $200 million over five years in California Competes funding was listed as the single biggest incentive to get Amazon to build its second home in California – topping the long list of tax and regulatory incentives that the Brown administration offered Amazon as enticements.

If California Competes is eventually shuttered, some state politicians are likely to strengthen their calls for the full revival of another economic development program shut down at Gov. Brown’s behest – redevelopment. In theory, redevelopment takes a portion of incoming local government revenue and directs it to projects with the promise to improve the local economy or to provide needed facilities.

Critics of redevelopment say it has a long history of being used for crony capitalism in California and that the diverted revenue often goes to cover routine City Hall expenses. But former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has made reviving redevelopment a key focus of his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, arguing that it is essential to building more affordable housing and responding to California’s housing crisis.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Prop. 13 Report from Legislative Analyst Elicits Mixed Reactions

property taxTwo weeks ago, the California Legislative Analyst released a report entitled “Common Claims About Proposition 13.” On balance, the report was a (mostly) objective view about California’s landmark property tax reduction measure.

As the title of the report implies, there are many claims about Prop. 13, what it does and what it doesn’t do. In fact, we at Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association have collected a lengthy list of “myths” about Prop. 13 that are deeply ensconced in urban legend. For example, the monolithic education bureaucracy repeatedly claims that Prop. 13 starved public education in California. But the fact is that we now spend 30 percent more on a per student, inflation adjusted basis than we did just prior to Prop. 13’s passage – a time in which there is broad consensus that education in California was the best in the nation. Whatever it is that caused the decline in the quality of public education, it certainly hasn’t been the lack of revenue.

The release of the LAO report instigated a great deal of reaction, ranging from cheers to jeers depending on one’s pre-conceived opinions about Prop. 13. Every interest group, it seems, has cherry picked the report to confirm what they already believe. But objectively, for Prop. 13 defenders, we see much in the report that supports what we’ve been saying for decades.

Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.” Here are the “roses” we see in the report:

First, the report says that residential and commercial properties turn over at about the same rate, and that Prop. 13 is not the cause of this. It also says that residential property tax growth is only slightly more than that from business properties, but this is due to greater residential development. This runs directly counter to those who desire to strip Prop. 13 protections from business properties.

Second, the report states that small businesses pay less in property tax because of Proposition 13, and that Prop. 13 does not serve as a disincentive to create small businesses. This busts another bubble floated by Prop. 13’s detractors.

Third, and most importantly for the Jarvis faithful comprised of senior homeowners, the report shows that assessed valuation limits provide greater security to retirees.

About the only item in the report that Prop. 13 haters can point to is the LAO’s conclusion that wealthy Californians, who own higher value properties, have benefited more than those with modest homes. But to this we respond with a resounding “Duh.” Obviously, given that Prop. 13’s rate limits and limits on increases in taxable value apply equally to all property, those with more expensive properties will benefit more. Prop. 13’s protections were never designed to be means tested. It provides the same rules to every property owner in California, from the owners of modest bungalows to mansions and from small mom and pop businesses to corporations. It doesn’t pick winners and losers. Only winners.

As California’s leading defender of Proposition 13, we have only a few of quibbles with the LAO report. Here, we will discuss only one. Specifically, the report makes much of the fact that local governments had the power to reduce tax rates prior to Prop. 13’s enactment in 1978 and that this – it is implied – offset the rapid increases in taxable value that homeowners were experiencing. This is true, but in theory only. In reality, while local governments had that power, they didn’t use it. Reductions in tax rates in no way even closely offset increases in taxable values. How do we know this? Simple. Against every special interest and editorial in California, voters – by a 66 percent margin – launched the modern tax revolt known as Prop. 13. All that was missing were the torches and pitchforks. If tax rates had indeed been reduced, this revolt would never have happened.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

This piece was originally published by HJTA.org

High-Visibility Tobacco Tax Initiative Receiving Lots of Attention, Money

SmokingSACRAMENTO – There’s broad agreement that the 17 initiatives on the statewide ballot on November 8 cover some of the most significant public-policy issues to come before voters in more than a decade. For instance, voters will have a chance to legalize marijuana, outlaw the death penalty, put an end to the state’s virtual ban on bilingual education, approve a broad gun-control package and reduce prison sentences for some non-violent felons.

But two months before the election, one of the highest-visibility measures also is fairly narrow in scope. Proposition 56 would raise California’s relatively low tobacco tax (relative to other states) by $2 a cigarette pack – and increase taxes by an equivalent amount on all other tobacco products (cigars, chewing tobacco, etc.). It also would significantly increase taxes on electronic cigarettes and vaping products. It has high visibility right now because of a series of advertisements opponents are running on radio stations across the state.

Supporters pitch the measure as a means primarily to boost public health. “An increase in the tobacco tax is an appropriate way to decrease tobacco use and mitigate the costs of health care treatment and improve existing programs providing for quality health care and access to health care services for families and children. It will save lives and save state and local government money in the future,” according to the initiative’s findings.

Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed into law a package of anti-tobacco bills that, among other things, raise the smoking age to 21. Studies of addiction show that teens who begin smoking are more likely to continue this dangerous habit throughout their lives. Backers of this initiative argue that raising the prices of cigarettes is another main way to dissuade people from smoking. And they point to the costs to the health system imposed by smokers.

But the measure’s opponents are focused increasingly on the spending aspects of the proposal. According to the official ballot argument against the measure, “Prop. 56 allocates just 13 percent of new tobacco tax money to treat smokers or stop kids from starting. If we are going to tax smokers another $1.4 billion per year, more should be dedicated to treating them and keeping kids from starting. Instead, most of the $1.4 billion in new taxes goes to health insurance companies and other wealthy special interests, instead of where it is needed.”

An analysis by the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office confirms that only a small percentage of the estimated $1.4 billion in new revenues are earmarked to such programs. The main priority of the new funds, based on the LAO analysis, is to “replace revenues lost due to lower consumption resulting from the excise tax increase.” That reinforces the odd conundrum faced by California and other states. They use tax and regulatory policies to promote public health by reducing smoking, but then struggle to find funds to pay for ongoing programs as the number of smokers – and therefore the number of tobacco-taxpayers – keeps falling.

The initiative then earmarks some funds to law enforcement, to University of California physician training, to the state auditor and to administration. But 82 percent of the remaining funds go to “increasing the level of payment” for health care related to Medi-Cal, the state’s health-care program for low-income people. Prop. 56 opponents therefore argue it’s designed mainly to benefit health-insurance companies and other interest groups – and includes few limits on how they spend the money they receive.

Furthermore, the initiative bypasses educational-funding requirements under Proposition 98, the 1988 initiative that now requires approximately 43 percent of state general-fund revenues to be directed to the public-school system. As the LAOexplained, “Proposition 56 amends the state Constitution to exempt the measure’s revenues and spending from the state’s constitutional spending limit. (This constitutional exemption is similar to ones already in place for prior, voter-approved increases in tobacco taxes.) This measure also exempts revenues from minimum funding requirements for education required under Proposition 98.”

It’s not unusual for a major tax hike measure to ignite controversies over how the new revenues will be spent. But there’s a serious question about whether this initiative will meet its health-improvement goals given the way the tax hammers a common product used by people to quit smoking.

In a research paper co-authored with my R Street Institute colleague Cameron Smith, we note the measure boosts excise taxes on vaping by 320 percent. The key, stated goal of the tobacco tax increase is to dissuade people from buying cigarettes. By the same logic then, the massive boost in taxes on e-cigarettes seems designed to dissuade people from using them.

Yet as Public Health England explained: “The comprehensive review of the evidence finds that almost all of the 2.6 million adults using e-cigarettes in Great Britain are current or ex-smokers, most of whom are using the devices to help them quit smoking or to prevent them going back to cigarettes.” That government health agency urges public-health officials to promote vaping as a way to improve public health. Some U.S. studies come to similar conclusions.

Proposition 56 backers argue that vaping hasn’t been proven safe and the devices haven’t been around long enough to know long-term health effects. They also fear teens will begin vaping and then move on to combustible cigarettes, which everyone agrees are dangerous. And they point to a recent University of Southern California study suggesting teens who vape are six times more likely to begin smoking cigarettes than teens who don’t vape.

In reality, the study seems mainly to reflect “the difference between teens inclined to experiment and teens not so inclined,” according to a public-health expert we quoted. Furthermore, the e-cigarette industry doesn’t claim vaping is safe – they say it is a safer alternative to cigarette smoking. Research suggests they are about 95 percent safer.

California has the second-lowest smoking rate in the nation at around 12 percent. Only Utah has a lower percentage of smokers. So Proposition 56 doesn’t effect a broad swath of the public – but it is a contentious measure given questions about where the tax dollars will go and about its heavy-handed treatment toward vaping. Compared to many of the other initiatives on the ballot, this one might seem simple, but it’s about far more than whether the state government should boost taxes on a pack of cigarettes by two dollars.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. He is based in Sacramento. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

This piece was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Cap-and-Trade Revenue Drastically Lower Than Expected

carbon-tax-1In yet another blow to California’s besieged bullet train, revenues from this year’s cap-and-trade carbon credit auction fell drastically below the state’s goals, triggering a selloff that left analysts unsure of the system’s long-term viability.

“The results of last week’s quarterly auction were posted and revealed that instead of the $500-plus million expected from the sale of state-owned allowances, the state will get only about $10 million, less than 2 percent,” the Sacramento Bee reported.

“The poor results confirmed reports circulating in financial circles that the cap-and-trade program has begun to stumble. February’s auction resulted in some allowances being left unsold — the first time that had happened. Afterward, there was a brisk trade in the secondary market as speculators began dumping their holdings due to uncertainty about the future of the program, which may expire in 2020.”

Officials and activists swiftly sought to downplay the damage. “Over the long-term allowances will be needed, and so the allowances that will be offered through the auction will need to be purchased,” said Ross Brown of the Legislative Analyst’s Office. “But in the short-term it’s hard to know and it depends on the underlying supply and demand.” From an environmentalist standpoint, meanwhile, “it’s important to remember that […] it’s the declining cap — not the price or number of allowances sold at auction — that drives emissions reductions,” wrote Alex Jackson at the National Resources Defense Council. “That is the purpose of the program, not raising revenue.” But with 2020 looming, Jackson allowed, the one-two punch against high-speed rail and cap-and-trade have cast doubt on California’s strategy of fusing infrastructure and environmentalism into a single economic policy.

Case and controversy

Adding to the upheaval, the carbon credit regime itself has wound up in court, as the state Chamber of Commerce pushes to prove that the legislation authorizing its creation — AB32 — has run afoul of the state constitution. “Propositions 13 and 26 require a two-thirds majority for the Legislature to approve new or higher taxes and fees,” as Hoover Institution fellow Carson Bruno wrote at the Bee. “Whether or not AB32, which barely passed in 2006, is unconstitutional depends on whether the cap-and-trade revenues constitute either a tax or a fee. These auction revenues fit the definition of both a tax and fee. They are imposed by a government entity, spent on government activities and are collected in exchange for a transaction — in this case a permit to emit greenhouse gases.”

Officials have countered that argument in court. “The state contends the fees are not taxes, but a consequence of regulations,” as the Times noted. But a judge hearing arguments “recently asked a series of questions that perhaps fueled speculation that he might rule in favor of the suit,” according to the paper.

The governor’s gambit

Flexing his considerable political skill and discipline to balance competing interests to his ideological left, Gov. Jerry Brown had labored to ensure that cap-and-trade funds could be leveraged to make the train a viable public and private sector investment. That presumed a degree of stability in revenues that now can’t be relied on. “The rail authority had been expecting about $150 million,” the Los Angeles Times observed; now, it will receive just $2.5 million. “Whatever prompted the lack of buyers, the auction is a stark example of the uncertainty and risk of relying on actively-traded carbon credits to build the bullet train, a problem highlighted in recent legislative testimony by the Legislative Analyst’s Office and a peer-review panel for the $64-billion high-speed rail.”

Brown had hedged against just such an eventuality, however. State finance spokesman H.D. Palmer “noted that there is a $500-million reserve set up in anticipation of volatility that could help close the gap,” the Times added. But Brown will have to clear the emergency expenditure in Sacramento, where some liberal lawmakers, hoping to channel more money to environmental policy, could try to nix the scheme by aligning with Republicans long bent on scrapping the train.

This piece was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Government Waste Negates Justification for Transportation Tax Hike

LA-Freeway-Xchange-110-105A personal digression: My father was head of the Iowa Department of Transportation (then called the Iowa Highway Commission) in the late ’60s and early ’70s before he was appointed by President Ford to serve as Deputy Federal Highway Administrator. (Of course, he lost that job when Jimmy Carter became president, but he continued to work in the private sector for a transportation think tank.) When I was in high school, I remember him coming home from an ASHTO conference. That organization, the Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, was a pretty well respected group and still is. He was complaining bitterly about what was going on in California. I don’t recall his exact words, but the gist of it was that the new head of California’s transportation agency, called CalTrans, had been taken over by a certifiably crazy person (with no background in transportation policy) by the name of Adriana Gianturco. According to my father, in the 1950s and ’60s, California had the best transportation agency in the entire world. But all that changed with the election of a new, anti-growth, small-is-beautiful governor by the name of Jerry Brown.

Now, fast forward 40 years. Gov. Brown, version 2.0, proposes a budget that assumes a big increase in transportation taxes and fees. The California Legislature shouldn’t just say no, it should say hell no.

Where to start? First, let’s take judicial notice of the fact that California is already a high tax state with the highest income tax rate and the highest state sales tax in America. But more relevant for the issue at hand, we also have the highest fuel costs in the nation. This is because of both the 4th highest excise tax on fuel and the fact that refineries are burdened with additional costs to comply with California’s environmental regulations.

The high cost to drive in California might be understandable if we were getting value for our tax dollars. But we aren’t. A big problem is that Caltrans is dysfunctional, plain and simple. It has never fully recovered from the days when the agency was effectively destroyed by Gianturco. A report by the California State Auditor just a couple of months ago concluded that a primary responsibility of Caltrans – maintenance of our highways – is not being executed in a manner that is even close to being efficient or competent. Senator John Moorlach, the only CPA currently serving in the California legislature, reacted saying that “This audit reinforces the fact that our bad roads are not a result of a lack of funding. They’re a result of a lack of competence at Caltrans.” Moreover, a report by the Legislative Analyst concluded that Caltrans is overstaffed by 3,500 employees costing California taxpayers over a half billion dollars a year. All this compels the obvious question: Why, for goodness sake, do we want to give these people even more money?

Another unneeded and costly practice consists of project labor agreements for transportation construction projects. These pro-union policies shut out otherwise competent companies from bidding on projects resulting in California taxpayers shelling out as high as 25% more than they should for building highways and bridges.

Finally, California’s environmental requirements are legendary for their inefficiency while also doing little for the environment. Exhibit A in this foolishness is Gov. Brown’s incomprehensible pursuit of the ill-fated high speed rail project. Not only has the project failed to live up to any of the promises made to voters, it is currently being kept alive only by virtue of the state’s diversion of “cap and trade” funds which are supposed to be expended on projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But in the Kafkaesque world of California transportation policies, the LAO has concluded that the construction of the HSR project actually produces a net increase in emissions, at least for the foreseeable future.

No one disputes the dire need for improvements in California’s transportation infrastructure. But imposing draconian taxes and higher registration fees that serve only to punish the middle class while wasting billions on projects that don’t help getting Californians get to work or school cannot and should not be tolerated. Legislators who present themselves to voters as fiscally responsible need to understand that a vote for higher transportation taxes will engender a very angry response from their constituents.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

This piecd was originally published by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association

Hurting Business Owners Is No Way To Help The Poor

PovertyWhen George Washington was on his deathbed, his doctors tried to save his life by bleeding him, which was considered good medicine at the time.

California businesses must feel like the father of our country did when he tried to stop the bleeding but the well-intentioned practitioners wouldn’t be stopped.

With California’s income taxes, sales taxes, energy prices and other costs at or near the highest in the nation, plus a regulatory and legal climate that escalates costs and creates high-risk uncertainties, many businesses have left the state, reduced hiring or cut hours and wages.

California’s poverty rate is 23 percent — 27 percent for children. There are now 12 million Californians enrolled in Medi-Cal, the safety-net health insurance program for low-income people.

This is a crisis, and California has to take action to address it. But we shouldn’t take actions that are inspired by the medical beliefs of George Washington’s doctors.

A proposed ballot initiative called the “Lifting Children and Families Out of Poverty Act” is exactly that kind of action. The measure would open a hole in Proposition 13 and start to draw money out of California real estate valued at more than $3 million.

The proposed mechanism is a property tax surcharge. It would begin at 0.3 percent on assessed property values over $3 million and rise to 0.8 percent on values greater than $10 million. Although it would apply to both residential and commercial property, its greatest impact would be on California businesses.

Property taxes bring in about $55 billion to the state treasury annually, and the state Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that the surcharge would collect between $6 billion and $7 billion in its first year. But the money would not go into the general fund. None of the cash would be available to pay for Medi-Cal and none of it would be allocated toward Proposition 98’s minimum funding requirement for education.

Instead, the billions would go into a new special fund called the Lifting Children and Families Out of Poverty Fund, which would be used to fund programs and make grants to organizations that provide services.

Which programs? What organizations? Where? These decisions would be made by the California Department of Education. The measure would put the CDE in charge of reviewing plans and annual reports submitted by communities that apply to become “California Promise Zones” eligible to receive money from the fund.

The ballot measure would increase funding for cash grants to the poor and for subsidized tax-refund checks to low-income workers. It would spend billions on subsidized child care, loans for child care providers, grants for students studying to be child care providers, and loan forgiveness for child development professionals. It would also pay for preschool in designated areas, and for home nursing visits to check on families with young children.

About 10 percent of the money raised would be spent on job training, including tax credits for businesses that participate in the training programs.

But education, training and child care, while important, are not going to lift people out of poverty unless they can find good jobs.

A true anti-poverty agenda would be focused on improving the conditions for business expansion and job creation throughout California. It would include tax cuts, an end to lawsuit abuse, and an effort to prune unnecessary regulations, as well as funding for education, job training and child care.

We’ll never cure poverty by bleeding job creators. That’s the medically proven path to the tomb.

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New eClaim System Makes It Easier to Reclaim Your Property From CA Government

California’s chief fiscal officer is making it easier to reclaim private property held by the state.

State Controller Betty T. Yee announced earlier this month an expansion of the eClaim feature for the state’s unclaimed property program. Property owners will now be eligible to submit their claims for property valued up to $5,000 using the controller’s streamlined paperless electronic claim process.

“The eClaim process is simple, efficient, and can be completed in a couple of minutes,” Yee said in a press release. “An increased threshold of $5,000 will allow many more Californians to claim lost or forgotten property online and quickly receive a check in the mail.”

Unclaimed Property: Your Money Held by the State

Under state law, when there’s been no activity on an account for three years, financial institutions are obliged to report this unclaimed property to the California Controller’s Office. In turn, the controller holds the funds until it is claimed by the owner. The most common types of unclaimed properties are bank accounts, stocks, bonds, uncashed checks, wages, life insurance benefits and safe deposit box contents.

Among the biggest problems facing the state’s unclaimed property program: a lack of public awareness about where people can find their old property. Most people don’t realize they’re owed money from a forgotten insurance settlement or an abandoned stock dividend.

However, for those owners aware of the program, obtaining the necessary paperwork to prove ownership can be costly and time-consuming. Many find the hassle of paperwork not worth a small dollar amount.

Unclaimed Property: eClaim created by Chiang

To address the paperwork hassle problem, in January 2014, then-Controller John Chiang created the eClaim feature to expedite the return process for properties valued at less than $500. Later that year, Chaing increased the value to $1,000. In total, more than 315,000 properties have been returned through the Controller’s eClaim feature.

Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 10.35.42 AMThe state currently holds more than $8 billion in unclaimed property that rightfully belongs to more than 32 million people and businesses. More than three-quarters of unclaimed properties are estimated to be eligible for the new expanded eClaim feature. Yee says that by increasing the threshold to $5,000, she’ll be able to return another $9.4 million per year.

Among those who could benefit from the eClaim feature is billionaire hedge fund manager turned environmental activist Tom Steyer. The former hedge fund manager has three unclaimed properties, each valued at less than $50, dating back to his time as founder of the San Francisco-basedFarallon Capital Management.

LAO Report: State Can Do More

For decades, the state has made it difficult for owners to obtain their property. From 1990-2007, state law prohibited the Controller’s office from contacting approximately 80 percent of owners.

Earlier this year, the state Legislative Analyst’s Office released a report critical of the state’s unclaimed property system. The state could do a better job of finding owners, the report concluded, instead of passively waiting for the cash to be claimed.

It also argued that the state has a conflict of interest in managing the program.

“In particular, because property not reunited with owners becomes state General Fund revenue, the unclaimed property law creates an incentive for the state to reunite less property with owners,” the report found. “Now generating over $400 million in annual revenue, unclaimed property is the state General Fund’s fifth-largest revenue source. This has created tension between two opposing program identities — unclaimed property as a consumer protection program and as a source of General Fund revenue.”

Unclaimed Property: How to Search for Unclaimed Property

To find out if you have unclaimed property held by the state, go to www.claimit.ca.gov.

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com

When Will Unions Fight to Lower the Cost of Living?

A report issued earlier this year from California’s Office of Legislative Analyst “California’s High Housing Costs: Causes and Consequences,” cites the following statistics:  “Today, an average California home costs $440,000, about two-and-a-half times the average national home price ($180,000). Also, California’s average monthly rent is about $1,240, 50 percent higher than the rest of the country ($840 per month).”

It’s actually much worse than that. Anyone living on California’s urbanized coast, from Marin County to San Diego, has to laugh at the idea that a modest home can be found for anywhere close to $440,000, or a decent rental can be found for anywhere close to $1,240 per month. In most urban areas within 50 miles of the California coast, finding a home or a monthly rental at twice those amounts would be considered a bargain.

These prohibitive costs for housing are mirrored in California’s unusually high costs for electricity, gasoline, water, and, of course, California’s unusually high taxes. The cost of living in California is one of the highest in the nation – along the coast, it’s probably the highest in the nation. For this reason, it’s completely understandable that California’s state and local government unions perpetually agitate for higher pay and benefits for their members. But they’re leaving everyone else behind.

The problem with the oft-repeated mantra “teachers, nurses, police and firefighters need to be able to live in the communities they serve” ought to be obvious. Nobody can afford to live in these communities, unless they’re either very wealthy, or they’re early arrivals whose mortgages are paid off and whose children have graduated from college. Otherwise, if they live on the California coast in a decent home, they’re in debt to their eyeballs.

This is a failure of policy, and the worst possible response is to exempt public sector workers – the most powerful voting bloc in California – from the consequences of these policies. Because the most enlightened public policies that union leadership might advocate – all unions, public and private – are not to raise pay and benefits for their members, but to lower the cost of living for everyone. And the way to lower the cost of living for everyone is to permit competitive development of land, energy, water and mineral resources.

Along with permitting private interests to compete, California needs to change how public money is invested. California’s biggest infrastructure project in decades is the high-speed rail project, which was originally sold to voters as costing $9.5 billion. According to a 10/24/2015 report in the Los Angeles Times, here are the latest projections:

“After cost projections for the train rose to $98 billion in 2011, vociferous public and political outcry forced rail officials to reassess. They cut the budget to $68 billion by eliminating high-speed service between Los Angeles and Anaheim and between San Jose and San Francisco.”

The L.A. Times report goes on to describe how high-speed rail is again over-budget. If it’s ever built, it’s likely to cost approximately $100 billion. Using an online mortgage calculator, you will see that a 5 percent, 30 year fully amortized $100 billion loan will require total payments per year from taxpayers of $6.4 billion. That’s over $1,000 per year from each of California’s taxpaying households. Don’t count on ridership revenue to help pay capital costs – it is highly unlikely ridership will even cover operating costs.

The opportunity here, however, is that California’s high-speed rail project may never be built. Because one of the conditions of the project is attracting a percentage of matching funds from private investors, and these commitments are not pouring in. Unions who are currently fighting for high-speed rail will need to find new projects to support. Regardless of what you may think about unions, as long as they have the political clout they’ve got, their support for new projects could be good, if they modify their criteria.

California’s unions need to support competitive resource development and they need to advocate public/private investment in revenue producing civil infrastructure that passes an honest cost/benefit analysis. These policies would not only lower the cost of living, they would create millions of jobs. The problem with high-speed rail isn’t that it doesn’t create jobs, the problem is destroys more jobs than it creates. High-speed rail would be a parasitic economic asset dependent on taxes and subsidies to exist, while not even making a dent in California’s overall transportation challenges.

Unions in California need to return to the core ideals of the labor movement, which is to care about ALL working families. And if they care about those ideals, they will make hard political choices. They will take on California’s super-sized environmentalist lobby, along with their powerful friends, trial lawyers and crony green capitalists. They will challenge the biased studies that claim California cannot solve its land, energy, water and transportation challenges without what is essentially rationing. They will recognize that policies that create artificial scarcity only empower the rich and the privileged. They will participate in a new dialogue aimed at identifying measured and decisive ways to unlock California’s abundant resources; aimed at identifying infrastructure projects that are financially viable enough to attract private investment. They will get out of their comfort zone, confronting old allies, and finding new friends.

*   *   *

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

7 Key Measures of California’s Transportation Challenges

1. CA’s gas taxes are the 4thhighest in the nation.

According to the American Petroleum Institute, California’s 61-cent-per-gallon gas taxes are the 4th highest in the nation, behind only Pennsylvania, New York and Hawaii. This does not include the recent addition of extra cap-and-trade taxes resulting from bringing fossil fuels under California’s AB 32 law.

2. CA’s gas prices are the nation’s highest.

According to AAA, the current national average price for a gallon of ‘regular’ gasoline is $2.63. California’s current average price is $3.69 per gallon (as of 8/5/15).

3. CA’s gas tax & transportation fees yield $10.6 billion annually.

According to the State of California, Department of Transportation, Division of Budgets, 2014/2015 Fiscal Year estimates, the State brings in at least $10.6 billion in taxes and fees “dedicated to transportation purposes.”

4. Caltrans spends just 20% of that revenue on state road repair & new construction.  

Last year, Caltrans spent $1.2 billion in state road maintenance & repair, and $850 million in new construction.  Similar amounts are planned for the 2015/2016 CA State budget.

5. Caltrans wastes half a billion $$ annually on extra staffing.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) report on the review of the Caltrans’ Capital Outlay Support Program found that the agency is overstaffed by 3,500 positions at a cost of $500 million per year.

6. CA’s roads rank near the bottom in every category, including:

  • 46th in rural interstate pavement condition
  • 49th in urban interstate pavement condition
  • 46th in urban interstate congestion

7. Poor road conditions cost Californians $17 billion yearly in vehicle repairs.

34% of CA’s major roads are rated to be in “poor” condition. Driving on roads in need of repair costs California motorists $17 billion a year in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs – $702.88 per motorist.

Originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

John Moorlach is a California State Senate, 37th District

On Bullet Train, Voters Finally May Get to Apply the Brakes

high speed rail trainPencils have erasers. Computers have the undo command and the escape key.

If you had it to do over again, would you vote for the bullet train?

It was called the “Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act” on the 2008 ballot, and it authorized $9 billion in bonds — borrowed money — to “partially fund” a high-speed train system in California.

The ballot measure required that there would be “private and public matching funds,” “accountability and oversight” and a focus on completing “Phase I” from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Anaheim. Bond funds could not be spent on the other corridors, like Fresno to Bakersfield, unless there was “no negative impact on the construction of Phase I.”

Today the estimated cost is over $68 billion, private and federal funds are not in sight, and accountability has been cut back — instead of two spending reports to the Legislature every year, only one report every two years will be required. And “Phase I” broke ground in Fresno.

Place your finger on the escape key and stand by. State Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Fresno, has introduced a bill, co-authored by Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, to put the bullet train before the voters again. If Senate Bill 3 (SBX1-3) can muster a two-thirds vote in the state Senate and Assembly, it will be on the June 2016 ballot.

The measure would freeze spending on the bullet train and direct unspent funds to the Department of Transportation to be used for roads, which would come in handy because California needs $59 billion just to maintain the freeways for the next 10 years. Gov. Jerry Brown has called a special session of the Legislature to look for revenue to fill the state’s transportation budget pothole after signing a “balanced” budget that left that item out.

The non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office offered some suggestions that illustrate the difference between what tax increases can raise and what the bullet train costs.

• Raising the tax on a gallon of gasoline brings in $150 million per 1 cent increase.

• Raising the tax on a gallon of diesel fuel collects $30 million per 1 cent increase.

• Raising the vehicle registration fee nets $33 million per $1 increase.

• Doubling the vehicle weight fees raises about $1 billion.

• Raising the vehicle license fee hauls in roughly $3 billion per 1 percent increase.

There are other options. The LAO says lawmakers could prioritize the budget to use money from the general fund to maintain and construct roads. Billions in cap-and-trade revenue, collected from fees now levied on gasoline and diesel fuel, could be used for highway projects that reduce traffic and improve mileage.

Additionally, $900 million that was loaned from state transportation accounts to the general fund could be repaid and used for roads. “Efficiency and effectiveness” could be improved by prioritizing cost-effective maintenance projects, increasing accountability and oversight, and examining Caltrans’ “capital outlay support” program to see if it is “operating efficiently.” Hint, hint.

The scrimping, saving and tax hikes needed to maintain the freeways can’t begin to address all the other transportation infrastructure needs, and we still have to pay for the rising costs of Medi-Cal, unfunded pensions and health benefits for state employees, and desperately needed water projects.

In 2008, the ballot argument for the bullet train promised high-speed rail “without raising taxes,” but it’s a shell game if tax revenue is spent on the train while taxes are raised for the roads.

Sen. Vidak’s bipartisan bill ought to have the support of every lawmaker. Voters deserve a chance to undo the bullet train and escape from this mess.

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Reach the author at Susan@SusanShelley.com or follow Susan on Twitter: @Susan_Shelley.