To outsiders, California appears to be a decidedly liberal state. After all, Mitt Romney is unlikely to even contest the Golden State and our super high taxes and regulatory burden establish beyond any reasonable doubt that this sure isn’t Texas. It is true that, taken as a whole, our elected leadership is very much left of center, but what about the voters themselves?
Truth is, the citizens of California — especially on fiscal issues — are far more conservative. Want proof? While the majority in the California Legislature would pass tax increases in a heartbeat, California voters are far more reluctant. Indeed, the last eight proposed tax hikes on the statewide ballot have been defeated, including an increase in the tobacco tax.
So, even if most Californians are not “anti-government zealots,” most are strongly in favor of making sure that tax dollars are spent wisely. Californians, irrespective of their political leanings, want fiscal prudence.
That is probably why recent actions by our elected leadership and entrenched bureaucrats are so out of step with ordinary voters and why the public reaction to the recent scandals has been unbridled outrage.
Add last week’s disgrace involving the California Parks Department hiding $54 million while simultaneously closing parks to the litany of other infuriating acts of gross misconduct by those who run state government. Particularly angry are the scores of non-profit organizations that, although they themselves are lean on revenue, stepped up to save dozens of state parks from closing. To say they were shocked and disappointed upon learning of the hidden money is an understatement and many are rethinking their support.
If this were an isolated incident, perhaps voters would be more forgiving. But on top of the high speed rail fiasco, pay hikes for legislative employees, having to pay $34 million in penalties for overdue bills, raids on special funds to pay for legislative malfeasance, etc., the misdeeds of political leadership are beginning to sound like a broken record.
It is no wonder voters are both disgusted and tired.
This is not the way it is supposed to be. In fact, one of the most important functions of any legislative body is oversight of how tax dollars are spent. But in California, the dirty little secret is that the Legislature conducts virtually no meaningful oversight.
One would think that with a full-time legislature, our elected officials would have more than enough time to review the performance and efficiency of government programs. But, ironically, other states which have only a part-time legislature do a much better job of being faithful stewards of public dollars.
The reason for this is simple. In California, being a legislator is a career, not a call to public service. And to maintain their political careers, politicians need to be in the news — a lot. Therefore, the incentive is to propose some new program that will grab attention on the six o’clock news rather than to do the more mundane work of oversight. Put bluntly, oversight is not nearly as sexy as a new program.
What California needs — especially now — is oversight on steroids. We need agencies to perform meaningful performance audits, not just cursory financial audits. Perhaps the establishment of a state grand jury would help. Or maybe giving the Little Hoover Commission true independence and more resources to pursue and prosecute wasteful and fraudulent conduct.
Clearly, something has to change. State officials admitted last week that the state’s finances are run, more or less, on the “honor system.” While that may be good enough for professional politicians, it falls woefully short of the conduct that those providing the taxpayer dollars expect from their leaders.
In the wake of last week’s revelations, Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff rightfully noted that a “slap-dash review by the governor’s office is no substitute for a thorough audit of our state government’s finances. It’s also no substitute for proper legislative oversight of state government operations. Californians deserve a thorough top-to-bottom audit of state government to determine how many more billions of dollars have been squirreled away by career bureaucrats. That process should be completed before we even consider going back and asking struggling families for yet another tax increase.”
In this, Sen. Huff may have put his finger on the only silver lining in this whole fiasco. Voters are very unlikely to raise taxes when they see how their money is being wasted.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.