California is Liberalism's "Canary in the Coal Mine"

Carol Platt Liebau
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Posted: May 18, 2009 12:00 AM

Once, California was known as the “Golden State.” No more. It’s struggling with a fiscal crisis of epic proportions. And voters are so disgusted with the ineptitude and waste of a state legislature dominated by liberal Democrats that they are poised to vote down a $16 billion tax increase and a slew of propositions allegedly intended to beat back fiscal Armageddon.

If residents of the other 49 states haven’t focused on California’s plight yet, they should. In a real sense, California has become liberalism’s “canary in the coal mine.” It is an instructive – and frightening – warning of the toll exacted by the kind of leftism now in vogue in Washington, D.C..

Put simply, California is in desperate fiscal straits because it has become a place where government works for only two constituencies: Those who need public assistance, and unions. Sacramento is so busy responding to the needs of the one and the demands of the other that the legitimate expectations of regular, taxpaying citizens have been completely ignored.

For union members, life is good. California teachers earn 25% more than the national average, even though some of the most incompetent, indifferent or downright dangerous of them cannot be fired because of concessions won by the teachers’ unions. The SEIU is so powerful that some of its members were able to listen in on a phone call between the Obama administration and the state – which resulted in the President’s threat to withhold stimulus money if the cash-strapped state made even modest cuts in the salaries of unionized home health care employees. In fact, state government is routinely held hostage by public employee unions; not surprising when one considers that California is home to 356,000 state workers – 9.3 of them for every 1,000 residents.

Similarly, if one is an illegal alien or in need of public aid, California works well, offering a panoply of health and other welfare services with few questions asked. Just last week, in fact, Democrats in the state legislature opposed requiring welfare recipients who failed to complete a drug treatment program to take random drug tests in order to continue receiving benefits. And California spends in excess of $5 billion per year on illegal immigrants and their families, offering a menu of health care services that includes non-emergency care, long-term nursing home care, and abortions.

To pay for all of this, California has the highest top personal income tax rate and the highest sales tax rate in the country. Corporate taxes are high, too. And yet regular taxpayers have little to show for the exorbitant sums extracted from them by state government.

How times change. Forty years ago, California’s roads and schools were the envy of the country. Now, of course, highways are jammed, and schools languish near the bottom of nationwide rankings. Hospitals are overcrowded, as are prisons. And contrary to the claims of those on the left, the problem isn’t inadequate “investment,” i.e., spending. Forty years ago, the state spent $1240 for every man, woman and child in the state, in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars. Now, it spends more than double that amount – $3200 per person – even as ordinary citizens’ quality of life has plummeted. No wonder voters are poised to reject the politicians’ propositions, which would require another $16 billion in tax increases!

What’s become apparent from the California debacle is that government is perhaps capable of doing a little bit for everyone, or everything for a few. But liberalism’s golden promise of an efficient government that does everything for everyone is nothing but a pipe dream – and an expensive, destructive one at that.

If Americans are smart, they’ll learn from California’s example. There’s something eerily familiar about President Obama’s close embrace of government employees and unions – along with his historically budget-busting “investments” in all manner of services – coupled with his call for higher taxes.

In California, we’ve seen it all before. And believe me, it isn’t pretty.