Dan Walters

Will tax credit for the poor go on forever?

Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed an “earned income tax credit” for California’s working poor.

When reporters asked for details, Brown termed it “reasonable” and quickly added, “This is not an entitlement. This is a commitment each year.”

Working poor families could claim the “refundable credit” only when a governor and legislators appropriate money to administer it, presumably when there’s enough money in the state treasury to pay for it.

It’s just semantic dodgeball.

Brown has often warned about loading the budget with new spending that could lead to deficits when revenues dip, or as he puts it, “too many goods become a bad.” And he doesn’t want to be seen as spawning a new entitlement, i.e. something that beneficiaries see as an inalienable right, such as welfare, unemployment insurance, or medical care.

Brown, however, knows that once EITC checks start flowing each year into the mailboxes of millions of Californians, it will be virtually impossible, politically, to turn off the spigot.

More than likely, therefore, the EITC will evolve into an “entitlement” that will expand to ever-more recipients. That’s been the history of such benefits, even those deemed to be temporary or non-entitlements when first implemented.

Entitlements are by no means confined to benefits for the poor. Corporate tax subsidies, such as the one Brown has embraced for the movie industry, are another. And even cops want them.

Three years ago, as the state struggled to emerge from recession, Brown proposed three years of state aid for city police departments to, he said, cushion budget reductions they were experiencing.

Initially, the aid was $24 million, but it rose to $27.5 million the next year and finally, in what was to be its final year, $40 million.

The aid is scheduled to end on June 30 and logically, it should. City finances are much healthier now, due not only to economic recovery but also hundreds of millions of dollars in state payments for local government mandate claims. Legislative budget analyst Mac Taylor says it should expire.

Nevertheless, Brown wants to continue aid for another year at $40 million, and police officials are pressuring legislators to approve it. They’ve become addicted to the state money and want it to continue, probably forever.

The Senate’s version of the budget erases it from the books. The Assembly would cut it in half and compel $5 million to be spent on “body cameras” for police and the rest given to agencies that provide data on “use of force,” responding to police brutality concerns.

The cops, of course, want the entire $40 million without strings, seeing it now as an entitlement.

Brown is feeding their yen for free money, though it’s no longer justified, while pretending that his EITC is not a new entitlement.