Viewpoints: Give breaks to California’s poor, not defense contractors

07/24/2014 12:00 AM

07/24/2014 12:21 AM

California legislators are on their annual monthlong summer break. Gov. Jerry Brown is just back from a trip to discover his roots in Germany and Ireland.

There’s nothing wrong with that. We all need a little break now and then, and with one of the most exhausting legislative calendars in the country, California’s elected officials are no exception.

It seems, however, that some parties are deemed more deserving of a “break” than others.

On July 10, just before adjourning for vacation, legislators passed Assembly Bill 2389 to use the California Competes tax credit to provide as much as $420 million over 15 years to Lockheed Martin Corp., a major contractor in Boeing’s bid for a $55 billion Air Force contract to build the next-generation strategic bomber. The governor signed the bill before he left town.

Does that figure sound like a lot? Lawmakers have already publicly agreed to seek a similar deal for aerospace rival Northrop Grumman, which is also competing for the contract, when they reconvene in early August.

That’s nearly $1 billion that could be gifted to two large corporations in the exact same industry.

While Fortune 500 companies are getting tax breaks right and left, California’s poverty rates are increasing and opportunities to escape poverty are more elusive than ever.

In fact, after more than a decade of austerity, the very small restorations to aid for the 3 percent of California families with children who receive government assistance mean they receive a maximum of just $638 per month, putting them at a mere 40 percent of the federal poverty level. Twenty years ago, this benefit level was 80 percent of the federal poverty level.

During this year’s state budget debate, Assembly leaders had hoped to use some of the state’s recent revenue windfall to restore funds to some programs that work to keep children safe from the lifelong impacts of deep poverty, and Senate leaders had hoped to protect poor and disabled adults from inhumane living conditions. And they could have, if they had been able to use the estimates from the Legislative Analyst’s Office about how much money was available to invest in these goals.

In the end, they were forced to concede to the governor’s lower revenue projections and abandon these efforts.

But it appears that we are not low on cash after all, just rich in exceptions.

Here’s the so-called logic behind the billion-dollar tax break: By helping Lockheed and Northrop Grumman secure massive defense contracts, jobs would be created and California’s economy would be rendered more competitive.

The jobs that this deal will create, however, are not ones that low-income parents or the 700,000 out-of-work and disconnected young Californians will be able to seek. So, ironically, while California intends to win contracts for next-generation bombers, the state’s next generation – literally – loses out. Simply put, the California Competes tax credit siphons off resources that should be used to help Californians compete.

Sacramento should turn its focus from the sky to the ground – parents unable to afford child care; seniors exchanging in-home care for unfamiliar nursing homes; parents wondering how to make dinner out of a box of Bisquick so their kids won’t go hungry; out-of-work veterans who are unable to get help from underfunded county veterans service offices.

Imagine if the Defense Department were offering a contract to rebuild the dilapidated veterans health system instead of rebuilding nuclear bombers. Or imagine a legislative vision that prioritized a war on poverty over refurbishing warplanes. What if we invested as seriously in the education, nutrition and neighborhoods of future pilots and aerospace engineers as we did in the handing out of tax breaks to wealthy corporations?

A state burdened by the nation’s highest poverty rate – nearly one in four residents – cannot seek dignity in a billion-dollar tax break while simultaneously claiming that it lacks funding to protect the basic human needs of its children and most vulnerable adults.

Gov. Brown, now that you have rediscovered your roots, we urge you to consider the communities rooted right here in your home state.

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