Government Boondoggles Threaten CA Property Owners and Taxpayers

High Speed Rail FresnoOne would hope that with the profound foolishness associated with California’s infamous High Speed Rail (HSR) project that our elected leadership would have learned a thing or two.

But this is California. Because we do things bigger and better than anyone else, it’s apparent that one massive boondoggle isn’t enough — we need two.

Let’s recap what we’ll call Boondoggle, Senior.

The complete dysfunction of HSR is no longer in dispute. Missed deadlines for the business plans, lack of transparency, massive cost overruns, engineering hurdles that make the project virtually impossible to complete and a lack of funding are tops on the list. Not only is HSR no longer viable, but the biggest irony is the project was justified on grounds that it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even there it fails, as the independent Legislative Analyst has concluded that the project will be a net GHG producer for the foreseeable future.

HSR is now an international joke. Many who originally supported the High Speed Rail project have changed their opinions, including a former Chairman of the HSR Authority.

Boondoggle, Junior, is the planned construction of the Twin Tunnels project through the Sacramento River Delta, also known as WaterFix. While there is no doubt that California needs additional water infrastructure — and the dams and canals we have now are in need of serious maintenance – Governor Brown’s Twin Tunnel project suffers from the same major flaw as High Speed Rail — an abject lack of planning and no vision for how the project will be funded.

Like the High Speed Rail project, the financing for the Twin Tunnels is illusory. Many of the potential major wholesale customers of water from the Twin Tunnels are highly skeptical of its viability and balk at paying for it. The one exception is the Metropolitan Water District in the greater L.A. area, which has now said it will pay for the full project. Of course, that means its customers will pay.

Lack of transparency is another quality the Twin Tunnels project shares with HSR. Earlier this week, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee held a hearing that opened the way for an extension of the long-term contracts for the State Water Project for another 50 years. (The hearing was supposed to be conducted in the waning days of the Legislative session, but because the topic is so controversial, it was delayed until after everyone left town.) …

Click here to read the full article from the Pasadena Star News

Battles Fought to Stop Tax Hikes in CA Legislature

CapitolWhile on the campaign trail prior to the 1988 election, Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush uttered the now infamous words, “read my lips, no new taxes.” Of course, this was a pledge he broke, which likely cost him reelection.

The mission of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is to protect Proposition 13 and to advance taxpayers’ rights, including the right to limited taxation, the right to vote on tax increases and the right of economical, equitable and efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

Unfortunately, this value set is shared by too few politicians in Sacramento.

Because of that, taxpayers rarely are able to obtain meaningful reform in the state Capitol. California’s reputation for high taxes and burdensome regulations is well deserved and taxpayers are usually able to obtain relief only through the powers of direct democracy including initiative, referendum and recall.

While many wish this wasn’t the case, the stark reality is that legislators have voted for eight taxes (six of which became law) since 2012.

In nearly all instances it was Republicans (usually opposed to higher taxes) who joined with tax-and-spend Democrats to provide the final vote for tax increases ranging from car registrations, to gas taxes, to lumber and battery assessments and mattresses.

Thankfully though, no taxes were approved in 2018.

Don’t misunderstand, the tax-and-spend lobby wasn’t taking the year off just because of the upcoming November election. If anything, they were eager to follow up on their three victories last year, which included the infamous gas tax and a tax on recorded documents. Governor Brown made it clear in 2016 that he desired a permanent source of revenue to fund transportation, affordable housing, and clean water programs. He got the first two last year so only the water tax remained.

The fight over the water tax was very contentious. First, no one doubted the importance of having access to clean water, particularly in the Central Valley where decades of neglect and mismanagement of water systems created the problem in the first place. But imposing a dollar-a-month tax on all residential water users in the state to address a local problem made no sense. The cost to fix the problem was estimated to be $120 million of one-time money, which reflects a tiny percentage of California’s General Fund budget. Thankfully, Senate Bill 623 failed before the Legislature’s summer recess in July and taxpayers and their allies, mostly California’s local water agencies, breathed a sigh of relief. …

Click here to read the full article from the Los Angeles Daily News

Opponents of Repealing the Gas Tax Are Getting Desperate

gas prices 2There’s an old saying in business: Build a better a mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.

But not everyone builds their success on creating better products or providing better services. There are some that specialize in manipulating the laws and the government as a strategy for increasing profits.

This has sometimes been called “rent seeking,” in the sense that it might apply to a storybook troll under a bridge, collecting “rent” as if he owned the right of way.

There are trolls under the bridges in California this year, and next to the highways. They are the rent seekers who oppose Proposition 6, the grassroots effort to repeal the massive gas and car tax increases signed into law last year. They are engaging in some of the most questionable campaign tactics ever seen in California. These Prop. 6 opponents are making millions of dollars from the massive infusion of taxpayer cash paid by hardworking Californians who need their cars in their daily lives.

First, let’s cover the basics: Proposition 6 does not repeal the entire gas tax — only that portion that pushed us up to just about the highest in the United States. If Proposition 6 passes, California will still have the 5th highest gas tax in the nation. Opponents of Prop. 6 would have voters believe that this level of taxation can’t even keep our existing roads paved, let alone build new highways.

Second, waste, fraud and abuse in California transportation spending is legendary. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office says needless overstaffing at Caltrans is costing taxpayers billions.  For what California is spending on the nation’s biggest boondoggle, high-speed rail, we could easily pave Interstate 5 from San Ysidro to the Oregon border.

Third, if transportation is so important, why can’t we spend some of the state’s $9 billion-dollar surplus for one-time expenditures?  Gov. Brown’s father did that when he was governor.

Bottom line is that this is not about transportation or the need to fix our roads. No one disputes that our roads are in terrible shape. But credible plans to address this critical need without raising taxes can’t even get a hearing in the legislature. Why?

The reason is simple. This is about transferring money — and lots of it — from hardworking California taxpayers to special interests. …

To read the entire column from the Press-Enterprise, please click here.

Taxpayer Danger Lurks Beneath California’s Employment Numbers

JobsOn a superficial level, things look pretty good in California. Sure, we have big problems with wildfires and other periodic disasters, but the state’s finances have made a strong recovery since the depths of the recession. Indeed, Gov. Brown has repeatedly touted the multi-billion-dollar surplus and the state’s balanced budget.

But objective assessments from government experts and academicians have warned of troubling aspects of the state’s financial condition. These include mega projects we can’t pay for, business flight out of California, unfunded pension obligations in the hundreds of billions of dollars, a state government that is growing much faster than population and inflation combined and a dysfunctional political system.

Close analysis reveals that California is like a home with a fresh coat of paint but a crumbling foundation. It may look pretty, but there are serious problems that are not readily apparent.

One area where there is a gulf between superficial appearance and reality is in California labor statistics. Here again, on the surface, the state’s 4.2 percent unemployment rate looks very good — and it is. During the depths of the recession, the state hit a high of 12.2 percent unemployment and tens of thousands of Californians were suffering. There’s no denying that we’ve seen a vast improvement.

But there are metrics beyond the simple unemployment rate that must be taken into consideration to fully comprehend the health of California’s labor force. A recent report from the California Center for Jobs and the Economy has troubling news: “California’s labor force grew only 16,922 over the 12 months ending July 2018, or 0.1 percent growth. The U.S. as a whole grew 1.8 million — a 1.1 percent expansion.” In other words, California’s labor force has seemingly hit a plateau — an unusual occurrence given the strength of the national economy. …

Click here to read the full article from the Long Beach Press-Telegram

Let’s Educate the Voters About Proposition 13

VotedThis week, progressive interest groups announced they had sufficient signatures to qualify an initiative for the 2020 ballot that is a direct attack on Proposition 13. Specifically, this so-called “split roll” initiative would raise property taxes on the owners of business properties to the tune of $11 billion every year, according to the backers. Because many small business owners rent their property via “triple net” leases, they too would be subject to radical increases in the cost of doing business.

Although there is a statewide election this November, the “split roll” measure will not appear on the ballot until 2020 because the proponents, either intentionally or not, did not submit their signatures in time for the 2018 ballot. They say they anticipate a better voter turnout in two years, which in itself may be wishful thinking. Ben Grieff, a community organizer with the ultra-progressive group Evolve, also said that the later election would be necessary to lay the groundwork for “a long two-year campaign” and that, “we need all of that to educate people.”

Well, educating people about Prop. 13 cuts both ways. And if past campaigns and polling are any indication, the more Californians learn about Prop. 13, the more they like it.

So let’s start today’s lesson with an overview of a class we’ll call “Why Prop. 13 is Good for California.” Here are the benefits of it in a nutshell.

Prop. 13 limits the tax rate on all real estate in California to 1 percent. Increases in the taxable value of property — often referred to as the “assessed value” — are limited to 2 percent per year. This prevents “sticker shock” for property owners when opening their tax bills compared to the previous year’s bill. Property is reassessed to full market value when it is sold. This system of taxing property benefits homeowners, because Prop. 13 makes property taxes predictable and stable so homeowners can budget for taxes and remain in their homes.

Renters benefit because Prop. 13 makes property taxes predictable and stable for owners of residential rental property, and this helps to reduce upward pressure on rents. If one believes that California’s current housing crisis is bad now, imagine how high rents would be if the owners of the property were forced to pass along their higher tax bills to their tenants. In truth, Prop. 13 increases the likelihood that renters, too, will be able to experience the American dream of homeownership.

Business owners, especially small business owners, benefit because Prop. 13 makes property taxes predictable for businesses, and it helps owners budget and invest in growing their businesses. This helps create jobs and improves the economy. California has ranked dead last among all 50 states in business climate by CEO magazine every year for more than a decade. Prop. 13 is one of the only benefits of doing business in California. …

Click here to read the full article from the Daily Breeze

Protecting taxpayer interests in the fire liability fight

Thomas FireOne of the most contentious political battles currently being waged in Sacramento during the final two weeks of the legislative session is over the extent to which investor-owned utilities, such as Pacific Gas & Electric, should be held liable and have to compensate property owners for the damage inflicted by the horrendous wildfires that are still burning across the state. Average California taxpayers and homeowners probably sense this is a big deal because of extensive media coverage, but may not know what to think about it.

Here’s what’s going on.

First, there is little dispute that the number of wildfires and their intensity has increased dramatically in recent years. Investor-owned utilities, including PG&E as well as San Diego Gas & Electric, have been forced into big legal settlements because many fires were allegedly caused by electrical wires or other equipment. The utilities, however, have attempted to shift some of the blame to natural causes such as climate change, which they argue produces the conditions for more catastrophic fires. (More recently, blame has also been placed at California’s mismanagement of public lands, which is undoubtedly a contributing cause).

Determining liability for wildfires is such a hot issue — no pun intended — because of the amount of money involved. San Diego Gas & Electric was facing more than 2,500 lawsuits and thus paid $2.4 billion in settlements for its role in three 2007 fires that burned over 1,500 homes, took human lives and burned 368,316 acres in San Diego County. Fires still burning as this column is being written have inflicted even greater damage and loss of life.

These damages have rocked PG&E and SDG&E.  According to a January blog post from the Energy Institute at Hass, California utilities lost $20 billion in market capitalization after last year’s fires.

In an effort to lessen their liability, the utilities say a constitutional doctrine called inverse condemnation has compelled them to settle lawsuits from property owners, firefighting agencies and local governments. They believe the doctrine entitles them to recoup some of the expenses by raising rates, but California’s Public Utility Commission has balked.

Although the utilities’ efforts to offload some of their liability for fire damage is understandable, taxpayer advocates are opposing the shift as it diminishes their own property rights.  The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association views limited taxation on property as a natural extension of property rights generally.  For example, following the infamous Kelo v. New London decision by the United States Supreme Court allowing the use of eminent domain for private-to-private transfers of property, HJTA fought for both a state constitutional, as well as statutory, prohibition of those takings.  Other property-rights issues of major concern to taxpayer advocates include the attempt to expand rent control in California and ensuring that just compensation is paid to property owners for traditional exercises of eminent domain, especially for boondoggle projects like California’s High Speed Rail project. …

Click here to read the full article from the Pasadena Star News

California’s leaky bucket theory of public improvement

The Tehama-Colusa Canal transports water to irrigate northern California agriculture and communities.

Unfortunately, Californians have come to expect significant levels of waste and incompetence when it comes to government programs. Just last week, we learned that the “new” $290 million computer system for the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration — in the works for over a decade — was having significant problems with tax filers trying to submit their quarterly returns. Despite California being home to Silicon Valley and the best high-tech minds on the planet, the State of California has a sorry history of failure when implementing big computer projects.

Although Will Rogers famously said it’s good that we don’t get all the government we pay for, Californians surely want more value for the outrageous level of taxation under which they are burdened. Other states provide better and higher levels of public service with much smaller tax burdens.

If one is carrying a bucket of water from a trough to a burning barn, it is best to have a bucket that doesn’t leak. If not, you’ll arrive at the fire with an empty bucket. When Sacramento carries taxpayer dollars to some popular project or program, they do so with a leaky bucket that virtually ensures that few dollars go to the intended target.

A story in the Sacramento Bee caught our eye last week about 2014’s Proposition 1, a $7.1 billion water bond measure approved by the voters. Not surprisingly, the bond measure was widely supported by a broad range of interest groups and received only token opposition. Given the high priority water has in the hearts and minds of Californians, such support is understandable.

However, much of the support for that bond was driven by the need for increased water storage, especially surface water storage, i.e., dams. So, although the measure passed fully four years ago, where are we on the construction of the promised projects and how much funding will they receive? In other words, how much leakage is going on here?

The biggest surface water project to be financed is the Sites Reservoir, in an area north of Sacramento, designed to store water from the Sacramento River.  For water users, especially in agriculture, the Sites project has been on the top of their wish list for decades. The good news is that the project will get the lion’s share of the $2.7 billion of Prop 1 proceeds dedicated to water storage. But the California Water Commission, which has been openly hostile to new dams, only awarded $816 million of the $5.2 billion cost of the project. And even that paltry amount was awarded after political pressure was exerted on the Commission which had originally recommend zero dollars for new surface water storage. …

To read the entire column, please click here.

California’s Property Tax Postponement program aids low-income seniors

property taxFor Californians who are struggling to pay property tax bills that are rising ever higher due to the increasing number of local bonds and parcel taxes, help may be available.

Property taxes are held in check by Proposition 13, passed by voters in 1978. It limited the annual increase in the assessed value of a property and cut the tax rate to 1 percent statewide. Prop. 13 has helped millions of Californians keep their homes by keeping property taxes predictable and affordable.

But keeping property taxes in check doesn’t always keep property tax bills in check. That’s because extra charges for voter-approved debt or special taxes can be added to property tax bills, and those can really add up. This can become a terrible burden for homeowners who live on fixed incomes, and may even force some to sell their homes because they can’t afford to pay the taxes.

Fortunately, the state of California has restarted the Property Tax Postponement program, allowing homeowners who are at least 62 years old, are blind or have a disability to defer the current-year property taxes on their principal residence if they meet certain criteria.

Before the Legislature ended the Property Tax Postponement program in 2009 amid budget cuts, nearly 6,000 homeowners throughout the state were able to benefit from it. Many had been in the program for 20 years or more and the majority were over 70 years old. In the last year of the program before it was cut, 208 people who claimed its assistance were over 90 years old.

In 2014, legislation was passed to restore the program, and it started up again in the fall of 2016.

To qualify, applicants must have 40 percent equity in their home and an annual household income of $35,500 or less. Other requirements also apply. For example, homeowners who have taken out a reverse mortgage are not eligible.

Homeowners who are accepted into the program may defer their current-year property taxes. It’s actually a loan from the state, with an interest rate of 7 percent per year. The state places a lien on the property until the loan is repaid, but repayment is not due until the homeowner moves or sells the property, transfers the title, refinances, defaults on a senior lien, obtains a reverse mortgage or passes away. …

Click here to read the full article from the Orange County Register

Withdrawal of the Taxpayer Protection Act could haunt the American Beverage Association

TaxesBy now, political observers have heard how a series of negotiations in Sacramento resulted in three initiatives slated for the November ballot being withdrawn by their respective proponents. The blame (or credit, depending on your perspective) for these deals has been attributed to a 2014 bill authored by then-Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, which allows proponents to withdraw an initiative even after it has qualified for the ballot. It was believed that this reform would result in more compromises being hammered out with the Legislature on contentious issues.

One of the measures withdrawn last week was the Taxpayer Protection Act, which would have strengthened a number of existing constitutional provisions including the two-thirds vote for local taxes. While a broad coalition of business and taxpayer groups backed the measure, and even provided significant input into its drafting, the lion’s share of financial support came from the American Beverage Association.

Faced with massive opposition from local governments and public-sector labor organizations, ABA decided to strike a deal with the Legislature to prohibit any future local soda tax increases between now and 2030 in exchange for removing the Taxpayer Protection Act from the ballot. The decision may also have been based, at least in part, on the perception that other potential financial backers for the campaign would be focused on other initiatives on the November ballot.

Nonetheless, ABA’s decision to withdraw the measure in exchange for limited protection for a specific industry blindsided many interests in the Capitol, including taxpayer organizations which were excited for an opportunity to campaign for strong taxpayer protections in an absurdly high-tax state.

Whether the Taxpayer Protection Act would have passed will be the subject of speculation for years. But it’s now a moot point. What isn’t moot, however, is whether the deal itself, and the similar negotiated agreements on measures addressing issues related to lead paint and consumer privacy, are a reflection of good government or whether they lead to “extortion light.”

Interestingly, political commentators have viewed these negotiated withdrawals differently. Some see them as all that is wrong with Sacramento while others see them as forcing the legislature to do its job. Most fall in the first category. Joel Fox, who puts out the Fox and Hounds blog, wrote a piece entitled “Weaponizing the Initiative Process.” Long time Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters, who now writes for CalMatters, calls what happened “genteel extortion.”

On the other hand, veteran Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton liked the fact that three potentially confusing measures have been taken off the ballot. He also observes that “unlike … initiatives, bills can later be easily tweaked by the Legislature to fix flaws.” But Skelton’s observation reveals another downside to these deals: Will the parties keep their word?

The decision by ABA to withdraw the Taxpayer Protection Act resulted in the enactment of legislation that they presumably believed would protect their interest for more than a decade. But almost immediately, interest groups, including health organizations that have targeted “sugary drinks” for years, filed a new initiative measure specifically targeting that industry. And unlike the Taxpayer Protection Act, which had broad support from an array of business and taxpayer groups, a measure seeking higher taxes just on soda might leave ABA alone in the opposition camp. …

Click here to read the full article from the Long Beach Press-Telegram

California’s Budget Process Should Worry Every Taxpayer

California Gov. Jerry Brown points to a chart showing the growth of the state's Rainy Day fund as as he discusses his proposed 2018-19 state budget at a news conference Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif. Brown proposed a $131.7 billion state spending plan, dedicating $5 billion toward the fund. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Let’s face it, when it comes to the state budget of California, most citizens suffer from MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over).  Because even public finance experts are confused by the thousands of pages of budget documents, it’s no wonder that citizen taxpayers don’t stand a chance. Besides, normal people are too busy working hard to pay for all the spending increases reflected in the budget.

Nonetheless, passage of the state budget remains one of the most important functions of the Legislature because it reflects the state’s spending priorities for years in the future.  Here are some key takeaways that should concern every California taxpayer.

First, government spending is out of control. While projected revenues are up eight percent – a good thing – from a year ago, expenditures continue to accelerate at a faster clip, up by nearly eleven percent to a record $138 billion budget. When other state funds, including special funds, are added to the total, nearly $200 billion in state funds will be spent in this budget. Legislators will argue that some of these expenditures are going to bolster a rainy day fund to protect against an economic downturn. While this fund is also at a record $14 billion, this will hardly protect state programs even in the event of even a moderate recession.  Second, we doubt that the spending priorities of politicians reflect what taxpayers think are important.  For example, this year’s budget includes a billion-dollar plan to completely remodel the State Capitol, while the state continues to lose ground on nearly a trillion dollars of unfunded pension obligations.

Finally, as in prior years, the 2018-19 budget is a vehicle for numerous abuses. It is now common to enact politically motivated legislation as so-called budget “trailer bills” as a means to avoid any meaningful analysis and public hearings.  This column previously alerted readers to one such sneak attack, a precedent-setting tax on water that thankfully was beaten back – at least for now.  But two other proposed bills represent the worst of Sacramento special-interest politics.

Two years ago, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association sponsored Assembly Bill 195 (Obernolte), a bill that increased transparency for local bonds and special taxes by requiring disclosure of the rate, duration and amount of revenue to be raised. AB 195 mandates that these important facts be included in the actual ballot label, typically the last thing voters read before deciding.

Now, education lobbyists and building trades groups are attempting to delay the implementation of AB 195 for local bonds by two years, to keep this important information from being presented to voters. In other words, our legislators are using a corrupt, non-transparent process to deprive local voters of transparency regarding the cost of bonds at the local level.  This is a double insult to taxpayers. …

Click here to read the full article from the San Bernardino Sun