When California Senate President Darrel Steinberg introduced a bill this spring that would allow local government agencies to impose a wide range of new taxes, I didn't think anyone would take it seriously (including the author). It seemed, unfortunately, to be a piece of political theater and possibly some high-stakes poker. With a simple majority vote, the Democrats could infuriate Republicans by finding a back-door way to raise taxes. Maybe that would bring the recalcitrant, obstructionist GOP to the budget table.
Instead, an amazing thing has happened: SB653 is moving forward, and community groups, politicians, and the news media are all getting involved in a critical debate: how should a state with almost 40 million people whose representatives can't even agree on a basic vision for anything be managed and governed?
Gov. Jerry Brown, in one of his populist streaks, says he wants government to be closer to the people — that is, let local agencies run things. That runs counter to the liberal agenda of the past half-century or so, a time when the federal government stepped in to ensure civil rights in the South, the state government stepped in to mandate educational equality, and all of us wanted to be sure that poor areas got their share of the social wealth. Segregationists wanted "states rights." Rich conservatives wanted local control over school funding.
But the world goes around and around, and the reality on the ground and in the political air changes, and these days the crucial issue, the defining issue, in the United States is wealth inequality and taxation — and the hard-right GOP has a stranglehold on both Washington and Sacramento. Meanwhile, cities are leading the way on civil rights issues — San Francisco, for example, defied both state and federal law to allow same-sex marriage and continues to fight for a saner immigration policy, even if that means opting out of a federal law-enforcement program.
The San Francisco Chronicle ran an editorial May 15 opposing SB653, arguing that it will benefit wealthier counties (which, oddly enough these days, elect pro-tax Democrats) at the expense of poorer counties (which elect conservative Republicans). That may be true, but there's another way to look at it.
I'm not suggesting that the state cut spending in rural and low-income areas, and neither is Steinberg. The idea is that the state's support for local government should be a floor — a solid floor — but not a ceiling. I'm fine with some of my tax money going to areas with a lower tax base and serious economic problems, even if the people who live there elect Neanderthals to the state Legislature. But if those of us in more liberal communities want to pay more for better services, why shouldn't we have that option?
And if some of us think this state is too big to govern anymore and ought to be split up anyway, this seems an excellent way to start having that discussion.