05/22/2018

The open secret about California taxes

California’s tax system, which relies heavily on the wealthy for state income, is prone to boom-and-bust cycles. While it delivers big returns from the rich whenever Wall Street goes on a bull run, it forces state and local governments to cut services, raise taxes or borrow money in a downturn. During the Great Recession, the capital-gains taxes that sustained the state in good times plummeted. School districts handed out 30,000 pink slips to teachers, and the state was so cash-strapped it gave out IOUs when it couldn’t pay some of its bills.

California is now enjoying one of the longest economic expansions in state history, but the good times can’t last forever. With an “inevitable recession lurking in our future,” Gov. Jerry Brown has warned, state and local governments are more vulnerable than ever to teacher and police layoffs, park and library closures and cuts in health and welfare services for the poor.

Past bipartisan efforts to reduce volatility without raising taxes on the poor and working class have had limited success. The overall tax structure hasn’t been updated, leaving parts of the economy taxed at some of the nation’s highest rates while other sectors, such as services—which many other states do tax—aren’t taxed in California. Politicians like to talk about the problem, explaining how Proposition 13, the famous 1978 measure that limited property taxes, has created unequal tax burdens. Yet few have been willing to initiate change.

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