Ben Boychuk

Free-spending Democrats suffer from budget amnesia

Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, left, and Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, on Wednesday announced a proposed constitutional amendment to change how commercial property is taxed under Proposition 13.
Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, left, and Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, on Wednesday announced a proposed constitutional amendment to change how commercial property is taxed under Proposition 13. The Associated Press

Sometimes I wonder if Eckhart Tolle is running policy for the Legislature’s Democratic caucus.

“Make the NOW the primary focus of your life,” the German-Canadian guru writes in his bestselling, Oprah-approved self-help tract, “The Power of Now.”

Maybe that makes sense for living a happier, healthier life. I am certain, however, it’s a terrible way to govern a state of 38 million people.

Democrats in the Legislature aren’t thinking too much about the past or the future (beyond the 2016 elections). With a constitutionally mandated deadline to pass a balanced budget looming Monday, lawmakers are focused on spending $117 billion NOW.

That’s assuming, of course, their revenue projections are right. Gov. Jerry Brown’s spending plan assumes a more modest $115 billion in tax revenue between now and June 2016.

It’s a question of priorities, really: Shall we spend an awful lot, or a really awful lot?

Meantime, state Sens. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, and Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, introduced legislation this week to “reform” Proposition 13, the pioneering 1978 ballot measure that capped property taxes and launched a generation of tax reforms.

The bill requires a two-thirds vote to make the November 2016 ballot, which means they’ll need at least some Republican support. But Hancock and Mitchell envision the new and improved property tax system could raise upward of $9 billion to pay for smaller classrooms, more cops and smoother roadways.

That’s one way of looking at it. The other way: $9 billion would also help smooth over a sizable unfunded pension liability.

Such is the political Power of Now. Just a few short years ago, Brown and the Legislature had to close a $25 billion budget deficit in the wake of the Great Recession. Now the governor is squabbling with members of his own party over the size and scope of new spending.

A decade ago, Proposition 13 would have been untouchable. Sure, Democrats have complained about the terrible unfairness of it all from the moment the measure passed. But it’s only been within the past few years that policymakers and legislators could raise the issue without fear of massive backlash.

Now would be a good time as any to recall Boychuk’s Fourth Iron Law of Politics: Memories are short.

Today it’s safe to attack Proposition 13 on the margins because Democrats dominate the political landscape, conservative tax reform stalwarts are a dying breed, and few Californians actually remember what the state was like in the 1970s.

I was 7 years old in 1978, but even I remember the stories about homeowners with fixed incomes losing their houses because they couldn’t pay skyrocketing tax bills.

Legislators can conveniently forget the budget crisis of a few years ago because the treasury is flush and special interests have needs to be met. What’s the use of a few billion in extra revenue if you can’t spread it around?

Say what you like about Brown, at least he knows something about history and the hard lessons it can teach. “Usually at the point when the recession is right around the corner and people are feeling the best ever and they want to just spend, we crash,” he said last month.

Political amnesia is a symptom of late-stage Democratic degeneration. Fact is, California is enjoying the dubious benefits of one of the weakest economic recoveries since World War II. The U.S. economy actually shrank 0.7 percent the first quarter of this year, following a so-so 2.4 percent rise in GDP last year.

The next downturn may be coming sooner than we think. In the face of another crash, it’s better to embrace the Power of No than the Power of Now.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Contact him at bboychuk@city-journal.org.

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