Erika D. Smith

Sacramento is worried about raising taxes. It should be worried about declining public trust

Mayor Darrell Steinberg listens to City Council member Jay Schenirer discuss Measure U on Tuesday.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg listens to City Council member Jay Schenirer discuss Measure U on Tuesday. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Living in Sacramento, the West Coast epicenter of the “deep state,” where everybody and his or her mama seems to be a public employee or collecting a pension, it’s easy to ignore the increasingly frantic warnings about Americans’ declining trust in government.

One of the latest studies, for example, found that only a third of the public believes that government officials will “do what is right” — down a whopping 14 percentage points from last year. That’s a hard thing to imagine in California, which has more government employees than any other state.

But if you think California and its capital city are completely immune to the toxic mix of anti-government fear, paranoia, outrage and impatience that was ushered in with the election of President Donald Trump and has been nurtured by his administration ever since, think again.

In fact, you might want to think of Tuesday night’s Sacramento City Council meeting as a warning of what’s to come in November if millions of voters are left to work out their trust issues on their ballots, shooting down measures that are crucial to California’s future.

One of those could be Measure U, which would raise the city’s sales tax by another half cent and make the increase permanent. The money it would raise would go toward keeping police and firefighters, as well as refilling the depleted housing trust fund and making investments in long-neglected neighborhoods, where the fortunes of people of color continue to lag behind residents of wealthier parts of the city.

I have to believe that, in a different, less Trumpian time, City Hall would’ve been filled with mostly eager supporters of a measure designed to increase equity in Sacramento. Instead, as the council debated before voting to put Measure U on the ballot, just as many skeptics spoke up.

Allegra Taylor strode to the microphone and accused the council of making “fake news promises.” She had on a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Build Black” — the coalition of community groups formed after the deadly police shooting of Stephon Clark in Meadowview.

“I’m a voter. I’m a taxpayer. I’m tired of voting for things that my people don’t benefit from,” Taylor said, her voice rising. “You give us all of these promises of what you’re going to do. What did you do with the last money you collected from us?”

Later, Adrian Mohammed, representing Black Young Democrats, urged councilmembers to set up a community commission to hold the city accountable for allocating dollars properly.

“Given the polling numbers of Measure U, and the justifiable and valid anger, fear and mistrust that’s been on display in this city in recent months,” he said, “I think it’s necessary and incumbent upon the City Council to take measures to ensure that the community trusts them.”

He’s not wrong.

Still, it’s striking that these were liberals and Democrats talking, and they sounded just like the skeptical conservatives and Republicans determined to undo Gov. Jerry Brown’s gas tax.

In November, voters will decide whether to repeal the increase of 12 cents per gallon on gasoline and 20 cents per gallon on diesel, which is supposed to raise about $5 billion a year to repair and maintain bridges and roads that are literally falling apart, as a swath if I-5 did on Wednesday morning.

But, perhaps in another a sign of the Trumpian times, most Californians don’t think the tax is worth it, if the latest polls are to be believed. They don’t trust the Legislature to actually use their tax dollars for road repairs and some, no doubt, buy the fictitious Republican line that the state already has enough money to pay for construction projects.

Even if voters decide to keep the gas tax in November, another ballot measure is planned for 2020 to make super, duper sure that the money is spent on transportation projects — even though Proposition 69 already requires that — and steer taxes from the sales of vehicles to regional transportation agencies.

“I call it the Robin Hood initiative — stealing our money back,” Carl DeMaio, chairman of the gas tax repeal campaign, told The Bee.

Talk about overkill.

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you, as the saying goes. But usually paranoia is just paranoia. So sure, question authority. Trust but verify, absolutely. But California needs a functioning democracy and democracy depends on trust.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, Erika_D_Smith.

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