When you watch the dimes, the dollars take care of themselves. The problem for California taxpayers is that we are powerless when it comes to watching the dimes unless we bludgeon our Legislature with the fiscal sledgehammer of the initiative process. If Proposition 13 is any indication, it creates terrible law but serves an immediate need when the political process has collapsed in abject failure.
We may be back there again, as the latest move is to have a special election later this year to let citizens vote on a budget if legislators are still deadlocked. While we're at it, we should "earmark" the budget we approve with some further restrictions on wasteful spending that no elected official will otherwise ever support.
For instance, we should summarily terminate the services of all "commissions" such as the Waste Management Commission that serve as a feeding troughs for politicians that have been put out to pasture. There is no way that today's elected officials will do away with these positions because they expect to be paid those six-figure annual incomes themselves (plus pension credit) for a few days of work per month. Our first earmark on our budget should do away with all such commissions overnight and bring back at a later date only those that we clearly missed.
Here's another example of something that no state Legislature will ever tackle. Many government employees --- city, county and state --- retire today while claiming disabilities. This means that their retirement money, for the rest of their lives, will be free of state and federal income taxes. They might truly be disabled today, but if they get better tomorrow, they will still be receiving tax-free money for the rest of their lives. Setting aside our struggling nation as a whole, the State of California loses billions of tax dollars as a result of this provision that makes no sense.
In most cases, people receiving disability go right back to work. A retired Concord employee was soon winning water skiing tournaments --- while collecting disability for a back problem. Talk to any orthopedic surgeon or a civilian who has served on one of these hearing committees where cases are made for approving disability treatment of retirement benefits. Most will describe the process as disheartening because it is like pushing on a rope to fight these cases. The incentive to put a stop to abuse is non-existent because the amount paid out is the same cost to the government pension plan either way. It's just that the disability treatment makes it tax free, so all remaining California taxpayers have to foot the bill. It's an epidemic. You're a loser if you can't somehow manufacture some disability status.
What's sacrosanct about a disabled retiree receiving, say, $50,000 or more in retirement benefits tax free? In most cases, they continue their careers in some other job. Social Security provides a good model for changing the system. If you retire early, you collect a benefit, but if you go to work and make money, your benefit is severely reduced until you reach normal retirement age. The tax treatment for disabled retirees could be similar. If you're truly disabled with no other visible means of support, by all means be our guest up to, say, $50,000 of tax free retirement money.
Above $50,000, you pay taxes even if you are disabled. Moreover, if you are collecting tax-free income and then have additional job income, you pay a 100 percent tax on the job income until your total tax equals what would have been paid as a regular tax on your combined retirement and job income. In other words, if you earn other income then you're clearly not disabled, and the tax-free treatment ends.
I'm sorry, but the rest of us are struggling too hard to keep this state afloat by paying what right now is more than our fair share.
Examples like the two I've cited illustrate why the initiative process is our only hope for bringing the state's wasteful spending under control. A "fifth column" movement should be established with state funding to systematically float initiative proposals to see which ones gain enough traction to qualify for the ballot. The day might come when most of California's major decisions will be made by the direct expression of the voters rather than by legislators who can't bring themselves to foul their own nests, even when it's the right thing to do.
I'd hate to see a thirty-page ballot, but that may be what it will take.