Wednesday, September 02, 2009

A Lesson In Populism

California's wildfires are not only burning trees – they're burning state cash, and setting off a cascade of other problems in the state. Already, as the fires appeared to have spread in the past 24 hours, they have delayed a ballot count in two special elections.

Let's focus on the "cash" aspect. California has had major budget woes this year already, mostly due to the facts with respect to the overall poor economy, as well as the plummet in property values.
If California had been allowed under state law to have its taxes, particularly its property taxes, indexed over the past twenty to thirty years, this crisis would have been far more manageable.
You might recall, if you are of a certain age, an asshole named Howard Jarvis. Jarvis is the asshat credited with "Proposition 13," a particularly moronic piece of "citizen activism" that forced California to freeze its property tax rates at 1% (One. Percent.) of the assessed value of the property. This created an immediate average property tax cut of 57% statewide, and a blooming deficit in couty and municipal coffers for eternity, ad nauseum.
This is why, for instance, Los Angeles among many other cities and towns, is under constant threat of default, dragging California as a whole down that path a few times already.
In a juxtaposition of irony, Californians have been hurt by Prop 13 in a booming housing market as it creates a disincentive to sell (the property taxed is indexed to the resale value, not the assessed value), while also creating a desperate housing market in an era of "buy as many homes as you want".
And now, those same homes that have been coddled by Prop 13 are burning up faster than you can turn around to look, as Prop 13 tended to benefit more those older, more established areas close into downtown urban areas, like Los Angeles.
Of course, most of the people who approved Prop 13 don't live anywhere near the fire zone, so what do they care, right?
Well, see, the trouble with that logic is, the cash drain that's going to cause this enormous budget gap won't only affect LA. It will affect infrastructure repair. It will affect flood prevention and rescue (another of California's season: mud). It will affect hospitals and firefighters and police forces.
And more important, it will cut into the state's water reserves, already down to between three and six months supply. A three year long drought will do that.
Now, if there's an earthquake up near San Francisco, up in the Central Valley, and the levees break, allowing sea water into the water supplies for both Frisco and LA, it's ballgame over, and there will be a mass exodus from California, south to San Diego.
And where will your property tax freeze help there, smartypants?
Of course, no one could have forseen fire and drought in a desert, could they?