Not even Evel Knievel could bridge this budget divide

There is perhaps no better metaphor for life in the Capitol these days than the Grand Canyon, symbolizing not just our gaping budget gap, but also the divide of opinion on solving it.

Like the canyon, California’s gap grew gradually, fed by a multitude of forces moving together to devastate our finances. Population growth, economic downturn, energy crisis, dot-com bust, housing collapse, natural disaster, ballot-box budgeting, healthcare costs, prison overcrowding.

None of them alone could have done so much damage. But together, one after another, year after year, they have brought us here, with a $15-billion deficit that persists despite $12 billion in cumulative cutting in recent years.

The depth of the deficit is exceeded only by the width of the chasm separating Democrats and Republicans who must sooner or later agree on a spending plan. This gap stems from some very basic beliefs about the role of government and community responsibility.

Some of my Republican friends might convince you that our differences focus on a willingness to spend. They have done a great job of painting Democrats as the “tax-and-spenders.” But that’s not what separates us. Republicans are only too happy to spend on programs they like. Several of them came to me and asked that my budget subcommittee protect one pet program or another. The real point of contention is what we think government can and should do.

We think government can and should serve people and make our daily pursuits safer and our outlooks brighter. Voters, on the whole, agree with this. But that’s not to say we are in perfect harmony. Recent statewide opinion polls showed that voters want both low taxes and high government spending. Likewise, they said they were willing to increase taxes, as long as somebody else would pay them. And they wanted massive spending cuts, as long as no programs were affected.

Many people think government spending doesn’t affect them. They have jobs, don’t depend on subsidized childcare, are too young or too healthy for government healthcare. So they go throughout their day unaware of the myriad benefits they take from government.

They wake up and make coffee with water that arrives in their pipes with the help of water districts. It is clean and safe because of regulations and standards set and enforced by government. They eat breakfast made up of food products that are regulated and inspected.

They go to work on a road built and maintained by tax dollars. Or they ride a bus run by a municipal authority. No matter how they travel, they do it where traffic rules and general security enforced by public safety officers.

It’s true that some of us can pay to educate our children without government assistance. But almost no one could maintain their own police and fire departments. And none of us could ever build our own roads and sewers and highways and bridges. We only have those things because we share, because we bundle our resources through taxes and we elect people to spend it in ways that benefits all of us.

And yet, the every-man-for-himself crowd tells us that government is ripping us off. They say we get nothing for our taxes. They say poor people are the only ones who benefit from government, and that the poor and weak should fend for themselves. But the fallacy of that argument is that none of us get through a single day without some help from government, even if we overlook it because of its ubiquity.

Sacrificing all those benefits to avoid restoring the very tax rates that were in place when the economy was blazing hot, makes no sense at all. In fact, once we reach across the ideological divide and agree on a spending plan, we can remind everyone that California is headed not toward a future of decline and decay, but a future of wise investment and robust opportunity.

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