By Ken Alpern, May 15, 2015
POLITICAL SLIGHT OF HAND-A funny thing happened to building our roads, rails, sewers, schools, parks and other infrastructure: we paid for them all, then when they didn't get built we're being asked to pay for them again. So where did that money go, and why are we being asked to pay for it all...again?
Part of the challenge about being both a transportation advocate and a neighborhood council boardmember is that I have been both forced and gifted (both at the same time) to be a visionary and a limit-setter, and forced and gifted (both at the same time) to be both open to new taxes and resistant to new taxes, and forced and gifted (both at the same time) to be both liberal and conservative when it comes to spending.
Hence I'll be attacked for being too pro-transit, too anti-transit, too pro-development and too-anti-development, too much of a spendthrift and too much of a tightwad, when it comes to spending public money.
Anyone who knows me, (and it's really not about ME but the results of the transportation efforts for which fellow transportation advocates fight), realizes that "Alpern's Law of Taxation" isn't really MY law at all--the concept of "It's not how much we get taxed, but the perception of how the taxes are being spent, that infuriates or satisfies the taxpayers" is one that is hopefully understood by most who've explored the subject.
Hence our problem in our current place in the history of the City and County of Los Angeles: taxes are so high, and the perception of how they're being spent is so poor, that the willingness of taxpayers to raise their taxes yet AGAIN may be at a level where we just can't do it again.
That said, the exploratory committees of Metro for another sales tax hike are optimistic, with over two-thirds polling in favor of another proposed hike...but which type of sales tax hike, and for how long, and for which projects is still entirely to-be-determined. And there are deeper issues that affect the voters and taxpayers:
1) Taxpayers are tired. Tired and working multiple jobs (often without benefits) and for very long hours, particularly if children are involved because the volunteering at school might not have an associated paycheck but it's still a job.
2) The economy is still mired, and the outlook is still too pessimistic. I'm sure that those adhering to the politicians in power would love to sing and dance and tell us all that things are better, but those same forces are actually prolonging the pain, and perhaps creating new sources of pain, that make it difficult to tax us more, no matter what the initiative is.
3) Is it really the taxes, or how we're spending them, that's the issue? Yes, I know that it's the GOP that is screaming the loudest about how "we don't have a tax/revenue problem, we've got a spending problem." But the electorate from both parties has felt tax fatigue, to the point where caution is the main paradigm for both sides of the political aisle.
4) So where did all the taxes we spent go? Hard to answer that question, but the recent Illinois Supreme Court ruling is indeed chilling and foretells part of the answer. Illinois has an explosive pension problem that is bankrupting the state, but they cannot renegotiate agreed-to pensions for those who are retired and living off a promised source of income.
And both our state and our City are right alongside with Illinois as to how bad our pension problem is.
We're not yet at the point where we can talk freely about how we can BOTH love our public sector workers yet note that our overbloated pensions prevent us from spending our money where we believe it's actually being spent.
So when Angelenos are being told their DWP rates are zooming upwards, while they see decades of DWP worker pay/benefit/pension abuse spiral out of control unabated, it's tough to pay for our aged, crumbling water and sewage infrastructure a second time.
So when Angelenos are being told they'll have to pay for their sidewalks and roads and other infrastructure as they fall apart after decades of neglect, it's tough to do that a second time knowing there are more retirees than ever who are paid six-digit figures of pension in their retirement.
So when Angelenos are being asked to increase their sales tax to pay for a Wilshire Subway, a Sepulveda Pass Subway and a light rail connection to LAX that have been talked about for 50 years, it's tough to do that knowing how many times our taxes have already gone up to pay for those endeavors...perhaps twice or more.
Like it or not, our economy is not so great.
Like it or not, our economy will be worse if we don't pay for our infrastructure.
Like it or not, bad pension deals and bad spending policies have resulted in our flushing away our hard-earned taxes, and we have the awful question to confront of whether we should pay twice for what should have been spent right the first time.
And we'll have to either bite the bullet and pay for our needs a second time...or continue to not pay and keep our fingers crossed.
Either way, it's hard to conclude that the taxpayers won't be unhappy losers from all this.