SACRAMENTO – Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s speech Tuesday at the Sacramento Press Club left many reporters wondering what the mayor is doing and what he is running for next. It seems odd for an L.A. mayor to fly to Sacramento, give a speech detailing a so-called “grand new vision” even as his city flails amid a budget mess caused by the oldest of reasons – government overspending. I’m left wondering about the future of a state where a serious contender for higher office would tout the ideas Villaraigosa espoused.
The big news is that he touched the third rail of California politics by calling for an end to the protections given owners of commercial property by 1978’s property-tax-limiting Proposition 13. He also called for ending the requirement of a two-thirds legislative vote to raise taxes. Few Democrats have been so forthright in their calls for heavy new taxes on farmers and small-business owners by eviscerating Prop. 13, and on middle-class Californians, given that removing the tax-hike supermajority would allow this Legislature to raise taxes on everything early and often.
“Progressives have to start thinking – and acting big again,” Villaraigosa said. “We need to remind folks that the slogan was hope and to stand up for the hopes and dreams of those Americans still struggling in this Great Recession. We cannot concede the truth that what we need is to invest – yes, somebody’s got to say it. We need investment in our economy. If the Tea Party in Washington and their counterparts here in Sacramento are intent on pitching jobs overboard in the mindless pursuit of ideology over country, we have to be willing to stand and defend our people.”
That’s a lot of left-wing claptrap packed into just a few sentences. In his view, the key to ending the recession is to invest more. Investing means spending more government money. Never mind that there is no money, or that the federal government, in particular, has been engaged in the biggest spending spree in history, that it is racking up a frightening amount of debt and that investment hasn’t helped the economy recover.
In Villaraigosa’s view, the biggest obstacle to this grand vision is a group of conservative grass-roots activists who have virtually no power in Sacramento. The unions with whom Villaraigosa is closely allied control the place. The Democrats control every constitutional office in the state. Thanks in part to the work of a supposedly independent redistricting commission whose members tilt to the Left, Democrats will probably soon have a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature. There is no serious Republican power in Villaraigosa’s home city. And yet we’re supposed to blame Republicans, and a recently evolved conservative political movement, the Tea Party, for California’s enduring mess?
Even though Villaraigosa blasted Gov. Jerry Brown for failing to take on the big issues, he offered the same false choice that Brown and his fellow legislative Democrats have been offering: Higher taxes or fewer services. The mayor said, “I laugh out loud when I hear that our schools are adequately funded – especially when we see tuition at the top private schools ranging between three, four, even five times what we spend per public school student.”
He’s calling for higher taxes even though the school district in his city is a monument to waste, bureaucracy and incompetence. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, it takes years to fire misbehaving teachers because of arcane union regulations. It also has one of the highest per-pupil spending ratios in the country. Progressives, though, measure success by the amount spent, not by the quality of results. Depending on which official you believe, the dropout rate at LAUSD is somewhere between one-third and one-half of students.
Imagine if the brakes on your car had that success rate. Imagine if you paid top-dollar for them.
These folks, with their “new” old ideas, never answer the questions many of us repeatedly ask: Why can’t the state and local governments stretch their generous budgets by reforming pensions, bringing government salaries back to the real world, outsourcing services, cutting unnecessary departments and eliminating the many commissions and other forms of patronage?
In fairness, Villaraigosa has cut positions in city government and taken on the teachers unions to promote charter schools. But these modest reform pushes can’t mask that Villaraigosa’s ideology ruined L.A. – a city increasingly decrepit, unsafe and fiscally unsound. It’s a terribly difficult place to do business thanks to all the regulations and union control. That’s amazing given its inherent beauty and locale.
In his recent City Journal article, “Lost Angeles: The City of Angels Goes to Hell,” writer Joel Kotkin, a Pat Brown-style Democrat, argues that L.A.’s death spiral isn’t the result of the economy. The city has been doing far worse than other big cities. This isn’t despite the city’s political machine that created Villaraigosa, but because of it, Kotkin argues.
“The Latino-labor machine has two major priorities: expanding the power of labor unions, particularly in the public sphere; and self-perpetuation,” Kotkin wrote. “Unsurprisingly, it cares little, and seems to understand less, about L.A.’s economic environment.” When the machine does care about growth, it mainly showers subsidies on downtown developers, even though downtown L.A. is a tiny blip in this decentralized city’s economic engine.
Yet Villaraigosa comes to the capital to pitch his vision and to set the stage for heaven knows what. He argues that the government needs to do more of all the many things it has long been doing – doling out subsidies, spending, running up debt, adding regulations, promoting unions. All we need to do is more of what hasn’t been working.
People keep asking, “What office is Villaraigosa running for?” A better question: Why do Californians elect the same failed politicians who keep doing the same things that keep causing the same problems?
California won’t be revived until we come up with a sensible answer to it.
[This article was originally published in the Orange County Register.]