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The Commonwealth of Los Angeles?

By Frank Gruber

The ultimate cause of the current most grave but only most recent financial crisis facing the State of California is the reality that while the majority of Californians -- living in the urban coastal counties -- want a high-tax, high-services state like Connecticut, a significant minority -- living in exurban and rural counties -- want a low-tax, low services state like Arizona.

Previously I have written speculatively about breaking California up into multiple states to solve this problem; it's not that I believe breaking up the state might happen, but looking at California regionally is a good tool to understand what's going wrong with the state and what might be done about it.

Consider transportation funding.

In the November 2006 election Californians enacted a series of bond issues for infrastructure, including $20 billion for transportation projects (Prop. 1B). At the time, everyone was excited. Two years later it all looks like small potatoes. Here in Los Angeles County, where the needs are great, especially with respect to mass transit, and where the bonds received strong support, the little that has dribbled to us from Prop. 1B won't make much of a difference.

Less than $4 billion of the bond was for public transportation, and that was for the whole state.

Compare Prop. 1B to Meas. R, which L.A. County voters passed in November. Meas. R -- a half-cent sales tax to fund transportation projects only in the county -- will raise more than $30 billion all by itself, and have a huge impact.

Similarly, if you don't believe that Los Angeles County residents are willing to tax themselves for the common good, just reflect on all the bond issues and parcel taxes that school districts in L.A. County have passed in the past 20 years or so.

The "common good." What a concept. But maybe you're a hardnosed conservative, and to you words like "good" are soft and undefined. In that case, how about "wealth?" That's an appealing word, and one that everyone understands. In olden times they used it in a synonym for the general welfare -- in the "commonweal" or the "commonwealth."

I like that. If Los Angeles County's ten million people can't form a state, perhaps we can think of ourselves as a "commonwealth" -- the "Commonwealth of Los Angeles."

In Sacramento, they're looking at more than $40 billion in deficits over two years. Big hits are expected to the education budget. Meanwhile, California already spends much less on education than similarly wealthy and urban states. According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures (from 2005-06), New York spent more than any other state, an average of $14,884 per student. Even Pennsylvania, with the 11th highest average, spent $11,028.

California spent only $8,486.

I know money isn't everything, but if you don't believe money counts in education, then why do upscale suburbanites in New York and Pennsylvania tax themselves so much to pay for it, and why do wealthy people everywhere spend so much on private schools?

Here's an idea: what if voters in L.A. County could vote to tax themselves to bring education spending in the county up to what Pennsylvanians spend? Considering that there are about 1.7 million public school students in the county, and it would take about $2,500 to bring our per-pupil spending to Pennsylvania standards, that would mean raising about $4.25 billion per year.

That's a big number, but according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, in 2006 (the most recent data I could find) the total personal income in Los Angeles County was $369 billion. So there is money to work with, and if structured right, these local taxes could be deducted against federal taxes.

The benefits would go beyond education. When people leave urban areas for the suburbs, the most common reason they give is "the schools." What if the schools in L.A. County had more resources than the schools in the suburbs? Think what that would do for the county's economy, if the upwardly mobile didn't leave and jobs didn't follow them.

I don't know how to structure a plan like this, although I will be researching more and writing more about it. There may be problems under the Serrano v. Priest decision that required equal funding for education in California, and no doubt there will be problems passing a tax under all the anti-tax measures that have passed since Prop. 13.

But I have a challenge -- to Santa Monicans. Or to a few of them.


Meas. R was largely the brainchild of two Santa Monicans -- Terry O'Day and Dennis Zane -- who received strategic help from Santa Monica City Council Member Pam O'Connor, then Chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board, and early financial help from local developer Craig Jones.

Personally, I never thought they could do it, but they managed to convince the required two-thirds of county voters to tax themselves in the worst economic climate in decades.

So here is my challenge. It's to the education community in Santa Monica, which has been so effective locally, what with promoting in the early '90s what I believe was the first successful school construction bond in the county in years, numerous parcel taxes and bond issues since, and, most recently, persuading the City of Santa Monica to cough up about $7 million in funding per year.

To the activists in Community for Public Schools and the Education Foundation; to the School Board members they have elected; I challenge you to go do the same thing for the Commonwealth of Los Angeles.

* * *

It's going to be a fun February for followers of local politics, as the speculation builds as to whether the Santa Monica City Council will elect a successor to Herb Katz. As reported in The Lookout, last week the council voted 5-1 to try to pick a replacement on Feb. 24. If the council fails to do that (a majority of four votes is required), the voters will choose the replacement in a special election.

The council gave would-be council members until Feb. 17 to submit applications, which will be made public on the City's website. (Applications are available through the City Clerk's webpage.)

The applications will be interesting to read, but residents are not interested in whatever platitudes candidates may write about themselves, or what platitudes the candidates' supporters write about them, or for that matter, what platitudes the sitting council members say about the candidates they vote for.

Residents are interested to know how a candidate will likely vote on the issues that will come before the council.

I have a suggestion. What if, as an indication of how they might vote in the future, candidates told us (and the current council members) how they would have voted in the past had they been on the council? This would not be a commitment for how a council member might vote in the future, but it's the kind of information voters typically have about an incumbent running for reelection.

It so happens that there is an easy mechanism to do this -- candidates can print out the "Matrix" that I published before last year's election showing how the council members voted the prior two years, mark it up with how they would have voted, and fax it (310 260 5572), or scan it and email it, to me.

I will publish the responses I receive from all candidates. Since on certain 4-3 issues the replacement of Herb Katz may change the balance of power on the council, we have the right to know how someone seeking to replace him would have voted.

As the candidates file their applications, I'll be sending them copies of the Matrix, asking for their responses.

* * *

I previously wrote that I hope the council appoints a well-respected Santa Monican who will declare that he or she will not run for election to the council for the balance of the term in 2010, and I mentioned some past council members who might be good candidates, assuming they would agree not to run again.

I want to say here that I didn't mean to slight former council members I didn't mention. Several of them I didn't mention for specific reasons -- Judy Abdo, because she works for the School District and (like Kevin McKeown) would be disqualified from voting on any district-related matters, David Finkel, because he's on the Santa Monica College Board of Trustees, and Michael Feinstein, because I can't imagine he would pledge not to run again.
Just a note -- this is public schools week in Santa Monica and Malibu, and tonight, 6:30 - 9:00, there will be a program at the main library about the state of our schools, featuring Dr. Stephen Carroll, a researcher from RAND, Ralph Mechur and Barry Snell from the School Board, and Tim Cuneo, Superintendent of the District. For more information, see this public notice.

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If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
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