01 October 2012

Prop 30: The schools are broke. Anybody willing to step up? …No? Figures.

In previous elections I’ve done a big long post on California’s ballot propositions. That’s because, to me, the props are the most important part of the ballot. They’re laws. They’re tweaks to our state constitution, and we’ll have to live under them. It’s easier to undo an elected official than a constitutional amendment. Yet most voters don’t bother to look into them. Some voters skip them. Others vote no on everything—especially if they’re tax increases or bond measures.

So rather than do the big long post this election, I figured I’d tackle a proposition at a time. Yeah, that means a lot of posts on propositions. And if you’re not from California, you could care less. Well, tough. My blog; I wanna rant about the propositions.

Proposition 30. Temporary taxes to fund education. Guaranteed local public safety funding. Initiative Constitutional Amendment.

What I’d call it. The state is broke. Let’s raise taxes, and tell ’em it’s for schools. Think of the children!

The problem. Thanks to the recession, people and businesses are earning less money. And thanks to our state constitution tying up certain monies so the General Fund can’t touch them, there’s not a lot of money-juggling the state can do. We have a lot of programs the state needs to fund, but we’re $5,951 million short. These aren’t the social programs Republicans like to bellyache about. These are the core programs, like schools, cops, CalFire, Fish and Game, Parks and Rec, flood control, and developmental services.

Almost 90 percent of those cuts will be to the K-14 school system—elementary, junior high, high school, and community colleges. Schools are, after all, the most expensive state program. Yep, even more expensive than prisons. Actually, we might save money if we turned them into prisons. But I digress.

The school system is broken in a whole lot of ways, and I won’t go into detail here. Suffice to say it went from being the best system in the country, when I was a little kid, to the mess it’s currently in.

The “solution.” Prop 30 is meant to put $6 billion back into the state budget, and keep the Legislature from cutting all the things it’s gonna have to. How? Taxes, of course.

Starting with your state income tax… if you’re rich, or as Mitt Romney would call you, “the middle class.” ’Cause you don’t earn a million a year. You know, like a socialite whose handbag company isn’t doing that well.

If you make more than…your state taxes go from…to…
$250K a year ($500K jointly)9.3%10.3%
$300K a year ($600K jointly)9.3%11.3%
$500K a year ($1M jointly)9.3%12.3%

Other than squeezing another 1-3 percent out of the comfortable, there will also be a hike in sales taxes. Those taxes vary from city to city. But statewide, it’ll go up by ¼ cent per dollar. So the poor get taxed too.

These taxes are temporary. Income taxes will go into effect next year, and stay at those rates till 2018. Sales taxes will go up in January, and stay at that rate till 2016. By then, the authors figure the economy will sort itself out. That, or they’ll write another proposition.

If Prop 38 passes—which will also raise state taxes—the state constitution says whichever proposition gets more “yes” votes is the one that’ll kick in.

Pork. Clearly this proposition’s authors thought it was a winner, so they slipped a few other things into it. These extras are not really that egregious: The state has to keep giving local governments their revenues from local taxes; local governments no longer have expand state programs unless the state coughs up some dough; and the state no longer has to reimburse local governments for obeying the open-meetings law. (Namely, 24 hours in advance, scotch-taping the meeting’s agenda to a window. Some cities were charging the state hundreds of dollars for the trouble.)

However. If the state hits the local governments with an unfunded mandate—a new requirement they have to follow, which might cost them a bundle—the state doesn’t have to reimburse the local governments for the extra cost. And that could be a problem. Let’s say the state decides every public meeting should be videotaped and put on the Internet. Now, I can easily do that with my digital camera and YouTube, but you know how cities are; they’ll want to spend $10,000 on some consultant, ’cause their city councils are full of old dudes who still think the Internet is a series of tubes that can get backed up when there are too many Internets.

If it doesn’t pass: All those things on the chopping block get chopped. Schools lose $5.4 billion and have to cut programs and teachers and school days. And of course the other programs get cut: The public universities lose $250M apiece, city police departments lose $20M in grants, CalFire loses $10M, Parks and Recreation loses $2M. You know, all the stuff the legislature was gonna cut anyway.

Argument in favor. (Arguments and rebuttals aren’t mine; they’re my summaries of what’s in the Sample Ballot.) After $20 billion in cuts, 30,000 fewer teachers, and crazy class sizes, our children deserves better. It’s temporary, only the rich pay more income tax, and state bureaucrats can’t play with the money. Vote for schools and public safety.

Rebuttal. Politicians need to fix what’s broken, not throw more money at it. Didn’t they just get $5 billion for a bullet train? It’s a blank check! It hurts small businesses! It kills jobs! Money for politicians!

And all the usual anti-government talking points. But wait, there’s more!

Argument against. It’s a scam. Once the state gets all this new tax money for schools, they’ll just cut school budgets anyway, then play with all that money that’s been freed up. You know that’s what they’re really up to: Taking more of your money to play with and spend on their special-interest buddies. And they won’t even fix the budget problems, or the teachers’ pension fund.

Rebuttal. The money will only be spent on schools and public safety. Our kids deserve better!… blah blah blah.

My view. The government must educate its citizens if they’re gonna run the government. Otherwise only the rich, who can afford their educations, will be the only ones educated, and the only ones running the country. We tried that. Whether the Senate of Rome, or the Parliament of George III, or the Congress of today, it doesn’t work. We need the masses educated. Otherwise they’ll vote for any rich ninny who convinces them that he’s more likely to give them government freebies—whether its Democratic programs or Republican tax cuts.

Frankly, the rich—unless they recognize God gave them a duty to help their neighbors—don’t care whether the public schools collapse. They got theirs. They fund the public schools only because they’re taxed. They fund, by choice, private schools. Fund ’em really well, too. All for the benefit of their own kids. If they were as interested, or involved, in public schools, we’d see far fewer budgetary and mismanagement problems in the system.

I would lump many Christians among the rich. Not necessarily because they have money. It’s because they likewise fund, by choice, private Christian schools. They’ve abandoned the public schools, and their neighbors, whom Jesus commands us to love. They’ve ceded that territory to the pagans and the devil. Again, if Christians were as interested, or involved, in public schools, they’d be a lot less like hell than they are.

Many poor Christians are trying. They can’t afford Christian schools, so they make an effort where they can. And there are those Christians who rightly recognize the public schools as their mission field; it’s where God put ’em, and they’re gonna win it for Jesus. They need all the help they can get. But they’re neither getting it from the rich, nor from their fellow Christians who flee the battle instead of fighting it.

Whenever I point this out to the Christians whose kids are in private school, the most frequent response is, “You want me to put my kids there? You want me to sacrifice my children for the sake of what you think Jesus wants? Hell no.”

Yep, it’s idolatry. If your kids is more important than Jesus, what else can you call it? But I know many Christians who decided, because Jesus comes first, their kids will go to public school. Their kids are gonna treat school as their mission field: They’re gonna make sure the kids are seriously grounded as Christians, with the full support of their families and churches. Then they’ll go to their schools with the express purpose of winning their classmates to Christ. They’re gonna be salt and light. So what if they’re children? If children can preach the good news of new TV shows and pop bands and soft drinks and neat shoes, they can definitely proclaim the good news of the Kingdom to their peers.

Take all the time that Christians put into their Christian schools, and all the money the rich put into their wealthy schools. Put those back into the public schools. Put their enthusiasm back into the public schools. And you’ll see a significant improvement in all sorts of ways. Ways the legislature wouldn’t know how to mandate. Ways the legislature shouldn’t need to mandate. The only reason for a lot of the existing mess is because the legislature has been frantically trying to replace concern with money. But money is no substitute for loving one’s neighbor.

So since money’s no substitute, does that mean we should raise taxes? If money isn’t the solution to the problem, why feed the beast?

Maybe the beast metaphor is apt. The beast is sick. It needs medicine. Money isn’t medicine, so giving it more money won’t treat it or cure it. But even though money isn’t medicine, it is food. And if you don’t feed it, medicated or not, it’ll get worse. Or die.

Only the most selfish of libertarians wants to kill public education entirely. I know a few of ’em. They want the whole thing to collapse, to be replaced with either vouchers—free money to let them educate their kids like rich people do—or anarchy, the school of “hard knocks,” where they picked up their “street smarts”—and go back to the old days of child labor and exploitation, on the grounds that it won’t be dismal and horrifying; it’ll be like a Horatio Alger novel, or Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln’s self-made biographies.

The rest of us are not so naïve. We don’t want to see public education die. We just want it heavily reformed. Heavily. But like everything, the solution isn’t gonna be mandated from the top down. Medicine and treatment must come in the form of concerned parents, teachers, and citizens who are willing to fight for real change. The system is broken because the wrong people have been willing to fight longer, while the rich and the Christians have fled.

That’s not necessarily gonna happen, whether we fund the schools or not. Raising taxes won’t make the rich wake up; not raising taxes won’t do it either. But if the schools’ budgets are cut, take the worst problems of the worst schools in California, and spread them to every single school. Hiking taxes doesn’t fix the problem, but it staves off a far worse alternative.

The anti-Prop 30 arguments sound like those of the selfish libertarians. “Don’t feed the beast; Sacramento will just steal all the food. Just medicate it.” Yet they have no intention of medicating it themselves, nor feeding it. They just want to hold onto their 3 percent, and the occasional extra penny they have to spend for a Frappuccino. They got theirs.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m a social conservative and a fiscal liberal. I don’t care whether taxes go up; I just want money to go to the right thing, not the wrong thing. Here, if taxes don’t go up, it’ll be the wrong thing. The schools will become impossible, and we’ll be forced to do something desperate—and people rarely make the right choice in desperate times. I’m sure the libertarian nihilists will be pleased to watch the defunded schools burn, and rejoice over the ashes. I don’t care to start the fire.

Unlike them, I don’t equate money with power. That’s why I don’t fly into a tizzy whenever governments demand—or in the case of propositions, ask for—more of it. Libertarians think power comes by keeping your wealth away from the government, and hobbling the government. And, from the other end of the spectrum, Karl Marx equated the two, and figured we’d finally have equality once we abolished wealth and private property. But both the libertarians and Marxists are wrong. Power will just move into other, unworthy hands. Jesus was the only one to get it right: You gain power by giving it up. Sounds like a contradiction, but it works every time someone has the guts to try it. Sadly, few do.

If we give up some wealth, give up some time, and put in some work, we’ll fix our schools. All Prop 30 does is give up some wealth. No, it’s not enough. We must put in the time and effort. Otherwise of course the wealth will be mishandled and squandered, ’cause we’re fool enough to let it. Money, time, and effort need to be done at once. And for the sake of those very few who are still in the schools, plugging away, trying to make something out of nothing, I say send them the money.

So I’m voting yes.