The Public Policy Institute of California today has released a poll that shows 77 percent of Californians want a say in the state’s taxing and spending decisions, while 68 percent think a special election is a “good idea.” The PPIC spun this as support for Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to hold a special election for the sole purpose of placing a tax increase on the ballot to help cover the state’s $11 billion budget gap.
The PPIC goes on to report that it found poll respondents a bit schizophrenic regarding support for a special election and actual tax increases. While a majority like the idea of increased voter input in the budget situation and seem to favor a special election, only 41 percent would support Brown’s plan to increase vehicle and sales taxes.
Brown and his legislative cohorts have presented the tax hike as merely an extension of the 2009 Schwarzenegger Administration-era taxes, not a tax increase. But that’s simply a matter of public spin and semantics. In reality, the taxes are set to expire on July 1. Any “extension” would require increasing rates that are supposed to decrease.
Given their choice of areas to cut in the state budget, those polled don’t want to touch education or welfare services, but they are open to cutting spending on prisons and corrections. That seems rather ironic considering just last week the United States Supreme Court ordered California to release tens-of-thousands of inmates due to prison overcrowding. Perhaps those polled simply don’t understand the gravity of the prison problem—or at least they won’t until crime rates rise because of the sudden flood of criminals into local neighborhoods.
Amidst all this budgeting uncertainty in the minds of Californians, one thing is clear: they understand government pension spending is out of control. This realization is critical when one considers that public employee pensions affect all of the major areas of government spending.
A University of California /Los Angeles Times poll conducted in April found that 70 percent of Californians support capping pensions for public employees—including teachers, police officers and prison guards. That’s a remarkable finding considering education and law enforcement are most often held up as sacrificial lambs in order to convince taxpayers to pay higher taxes. Even more interestingly, the poll found Californians support capping pensions for not only future, but current government employees.
For too long, tax-and-spend politicians have used teachers, students, and police or firefighters as their ransom for higher taxes. Now, public sentiment seems to be turning as every day more stories of outrageous pension abuse come to light.
Americans for Prosperity has made it our mission this year to educate the public about the pension tsunami that threatens to wipe out our state’s already-tenuous budget. That’s why we launched the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous on a Government Pension” tour to travel the state and educate taxpayers about the million-dollar pensions they’re paying to retired government workers who aren’t providing the necessary services we need right now.
As we toured the state, we heard from many teachers, police officers, firefighters and public employees who protested our education campaign. “We aren’t the ones getting these million dollar pensions!” was the nearly-universal cry. True, there are lots of hard working teachers, police, and government workers who don’t receive outrageous pensions.
But as the Sacramento Bee reported just yesterday, the number of government retirees receiving $100,000-plus pensions is rapidly increasing—and at an unsustainable rate. According to the newspaper, almost 9,000 CalPERS retirees have joined the $100,000 club—quadruple the number in 2005. The CalPERS pensioners alone will cost taxpayers $1.1 billion this year, which the Sacramento Bee points out is triple the general fund budget of the Sacramento City Unified School District.
Such numbers reveal the quandary for elected leaders trying to balance already-tight budgets: do we pay the contractually-obligated pensions or lay off teachers and cut other classroom necessities? Considering the millions of campaign dollars from government employee unions at stake, who do you think wins that contest?
Governor Brown has tentatively expressed an interest in reforming California’s catastrophic level of pension spending. However, while he’s more than willing to plead the cause for democracy when it comes to placing tax increases on the ballot, he isn’t willing to bring pension reform before voters. Perhaps he and the unions that filled his campaign coffers are afraid Californians know exorbitant pensions should be the most obvious area for cuts and reform.
Meredith Turney is Communications Director for Americans for Prosperity, California.