Jerry Brown’s fuzzy plans for California tax increase initiative
California voters are certain — as certain as anything can be in the topsy-turvy world of politics — to pass judgment on a multibillion-dollar tax increase measure next year, but that kind of measure is very much up in the air.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who tried and failed to persuade some Republicans this year to place taxes on the ballot, has often declared his intention to seek more tax revenues from voters via an initiative in 2012. However, Brown has ducked when asked by reporters what he would include in his tax measure, saying in several ways that he’s still working on it.
He can’t delay much longer, however, because realistically, he and his allies — most likely public employee unions — would have to launch their initiative drive early in 2012 to assure placement on the November ballot. The governor is caught, it appears, in something of a political vice.
The tax package he had sought for months — an extension of broadly based temporary taxes that were enacted in 2009 and expired this year — could be very difficult to pass, as recent polls have indicated.
It would raise income, sales and car taxes by roughly $1,000 per family per year, a hard sell in a state still coping with severe recession and whose residents already shoulder one of the nation’s highest tax burdens.
Voters would, the polls indicate, be more likely to accept taxes that most wouldn’t be paying themselves, at least directly, such as income surtaxes on the rich, taxes on corporations or cigarette taxes.
Those narrower taxes, however, probably would not be sufficient to raise the $10 billion or so a year in revenue that Brown wants to close the state’s chronic budget deficit. And they would engender opposition from business leaders who have signaled that they wouldn’t oppose a broader tax hike such as the one Brown sought this year.
The California Federation of Teachers is adding more fuel — and more uncertainty — to the issue by publicly endorsing a hefty surtax on those with taxable incomes of $1 million or more.
It’s the union’s way of aligning itself with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and the populist strategy that the Obama White House and the national Democratic Party are adopting for next year’s elections. They aim to mobilize public resentment against Wall Street and inferentially against Mitt Romney, the investment banker who is the most likely Republican presidential candidate.
In the same vein, some liberal groups are also pursuing an old dream of altering Proposition 13, the 1978 property tax limit, by removing business property from its protections.
But Brown, who was governor when Proposition 13 passed and had to finesse his opposition to it, is making it very clear that he won’t go down that path. Once burned, twice shy, as it were.
Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.
California's rural residents ready to step up against government overreach
The nearly five-hour drive from the Sacramento area to Yreka, in Siskiyou County by the Oregon border, was a reminder not just of the immense size and beauty of California, but of the vast regional and cultural differences one finds within our 37-million-population state. Sacramento is Government Central, a land of overpensioned bureaucrats and restaurant discounts for state workers. But way up in the North State, one finds a small but hard-edged rural populace that views state and federal officials as the main obstacles to their quality of life.
Their latest battle is to stop destruction of four hydro-electric dams along the Klamath River. Most locals say the dam-busting will undermine their property rights and ruin the local farming and ranch economy, which is all that’s left since regulators destroyed the logging and mining industries. These used to be wealthy resource-based economies, but now many of the towns are drying up, with revenues to local governments evaporating. Unemployment rates are in the 20 percent and higher range. Nearly 79 percent of the county’s voters opposed the dam removal in a recent advisory initiative, but that isn’t stopping the authorities from blasting the dams anyhow.
These rural folks, living in the shadow of the majestic Mount Shasta, believe that they are being driven away so that their communities can essentially go back to the wild, to conform to an extremist preference for wildlands above humanity. As the locals told it during the Defend Rural America conference at the Siskiyou Golden Fairgrounds a week ago Saturday night, pushy officials are treading on their liberties, traipsing unannounced on their properties, confronting local ranchers with guns drawn to enforce arcane regulatory rules and destroying their livelihoods in the process.
The evening’s main event: A panel featuring eight county sheriffs (seven from California and one from Oregon) who billed themselves as “Constitution Sheriffs.” They vowed to stand up for the residents of their communities against what they say is an unconstitutional onslaught from regulators in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. In particular, they took issue with the federal government’s misnamed Travel Management Plan, which actually is designed to shut down public travel in the forests. Plumas County Sheriff Greg Hagwood related the stir he caused when he said that he “will not criminalize citizens for just accessing public lands.” Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey reminded the crowd that county sheriffs are sworn to uphold the Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
As someone who has covered law-enforcement issues in urban Southern California, it’s refreshing to hear peace officers enunciate the proper relationship between themselves and the people. I could pick nits. For all the complaining about the feds, Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko had just been quoted in the newspaper praising the Obama administrations for its crackdown on medical marijuana clinics, even though state law clearly allows such clinics. One’s either for state control or not.
I hadn’t been in Yreka long before someone handed me a popular joke. A federal agent shows up at a farm and demands to check out the property. The farmer says OK, but tells him not to go over to one pasture. Then the agent arrogantly tells him he has a federal badge and can go wherever he darn well pleases. The farmer says OK. A few minutes later, the agent is running for his life from a bull. The agent calls for help, so the farmer goes to the fence and yells: “Show him your badge.”
It’s funny but anger-inducing. We’ve got a real sagebrush rebellion brewing in rural California. Urban legislators can ignore it at their own peril.
Steven Greenhut is editor of www.calwatchdog.com; write to him at email@example.com.
'Reset' on US-Russian relations has failed
Diplomacy is not a science, but sometimes diplomatic theories can be tested. As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama hypothesized that relations with Russia could be much improved. The key was offering respect and demonstrating a commitment to engagement and compromise.
On Feb. 7, 2009, newly inaugurated Vice President Joe Biden addressed the 45th Munich Conference on Security Policy. He said it was “time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia.”
The following month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a red button on which the Russian word for reset was written. Or so she thought: The correct term would have been “perezagruzka.” Instead, the word used was “peregruzka” — which means “overload” or “overcharged.” The Russian newspaper Kommersant ran on its front page a picture of the button and the caption: “Sergei Lavrov and Hillary Clinton pushed the wrong button.”
The results since then: continuing intimidation and censorship of the Russian press; aggression against former Soviet states; support for Iran’s nuclear weapons program; multiple murders in Chechnya which does not, for some reason, cause outrage in the Muslim world; cronyism, corruption and the oppression of political opponents including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the once-prominent industrialist. Oct. 25 was the eighth anniversary of his incarceration.
And this month, Russia, along with China, vetoed what Ambassador Susan Rice called a “vastly watered-down” Security Council resolution criticizing the “violence, torture, and persecution” being inflicted on peaceful protesters by the Assad regime in Syria, Iran’s most important Arab client.
Rice declared the United States “outraged” that Russia and China had “utterly failed to address an urgent moral challenge and a growing threat to regional peace and security.” She dismissed Russian and Chinese explanations for their position as “a cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people.”
Yes, but that’s not the half of it. In Russia under Vladimir Putin, who has wielded power since December 1999, communism has been succeeded not by liberal democracy but by autocracy at home and what might be called neo-Sovietism abroad. Putin believes Russia has a right to again be a “great power” and that most Russians support that goal. This has been apparent for some time.
Much as we might wish otherwise, the ideal of an “international community” that embraces peace, freedom, human and civil rights, tolerance, democracy and the rule of law as universal values is a pipe dream.
The autocrats’ foreign policy priority: to make the world safe for themselves. Had Rice seen that, she would have expected the Russian and Chinese vetoes. If President Barack Obama had seen that, he would have recognized that Putin will agree to no resets of the relationship — no treaties on missile defense or nuclear arms limitations — that do not benefit Russia and disadvantage the United States.
The 21st century has ushered in an era of competition among divergent visions of how mankind should be governed. Liberal democracy is one. Autocracy is a second. The third is Islamism, which it would not inaccurate to describe as theocratic autocracy. In any case, more and more, the autocrats and Islamists have been finding common ground and making common cause against the liberal democracies.
Obama conducted a meaningful experiment. But now the data are in and they indicate that American policies require readjustment — they need to be reset — in line with what we should by now have learned.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.
Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts
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Social Security benefit hike won't make up for Medicare increases
The government giveth and the government taketh away.
With one hand, the Social Security Administration will provide a 3.6 percent raise to some 55 million older Americans, the first since 2009. With the other hand it will decrease the amount they receive by increasing the premiums for Medicare Part B, which covers doctors’ visits and other medically necessary services such as outpatient and home care costs. Part B is automatically deducted from the monthly Social Security payment.
The result will be close to a one-fourth reduction in the average monthly increase of $39, or $467 a year, expected for most Social Security recipients. Monthly benefits average $1,082 per month or about $13,000 a year, according to news reports.
Well, how easily predictable was this?
My own easy prediction was brought about by a rudimentary understanding of an entitlement system that has any number of flaws and a Congress that seems politically incapable of significantly fixing them. Medicare, for instance, is not only protected from tampering, the root cause of its difficulties, and higher and higher medical costs, but also seems impervious to economic pressures like recession.
It helped that my startling prognosticative abilities were based on having remembered that Part B premiums have been frozen at 2009 levels for three-quarters of the recipients because there have been no cost-of-living adjustments in Social Security payments. Inflationary rates were too low to trigger the COLA. That, of course, contrasts sharply with 40 years ago when Congress installed the COLA to insulate itself from having to face annual increases in benefits and raising taxes to pay for them. Shortly after the adoption of the triggering device, for those old enough to remember the late ’70s, inflation rates were in the double digits and about the only Americans keeping up were the Social Security recipients.
So because premiums for Part B must be set to cover one-quarter of the program costs, for two years the entire burden of the increase in Medicare premiums has been borne by the remaining 25 percent of the Social Security recipients including new enrollees, high-income families and low-income families whose premiums are paid by Medicaid, the federal/state program for the poor. The 2009 premium levels are $96.40 a month. The 2010 premium for most new enrollees has been $110.50 and for 2011 enrollees, $115.40.
All this merely serves to re-emphasize the voraciousness of modern medicine, which continues to outstrip the annual cost of living and consume more and more of the wherewithal of Americans despite the fact this nation ranks far below other highly developed nations in the quality of care. Still, Congress refuses to adopt any reform, no matter how small, to try to stem Medicare growth and bring down national health costs.
It would be easy to label the amounts of changes for individuals as chicken feed, but in this increasingly sour economy a few dollars makes a lot of difference. For those relying on Social Security as the foundation for putting food on the table, the difference in what they might have gotten without the premium increase could amount to several trips to the grocery store.
Still, what is the solution? One of these days, without divine intervention or a miracle, this country may founder on the rock of entitlements, unable to pay for anything else, including national defense. The dire predictions for the future already have us going out of business well before the next millennium is even contemplated. But meantime, we must eat and shelter ourselves and any nugget is welcomed, no matter how small. Blessed be the name of the government.
Dan K. Thomasson is a former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.