California Faces Facts

GEORGE F. WILL

September 24, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

LOS ANGELES. — "Dear Governor Wilson: If no one likes you then no one will vote for you. The teachers are going to go on strike. You better shape up or bye-bye you're out of there.''

California's continuing crisis is America's most portentous political story. Pete Wilson's gritty response to it is a stunning contrast to the evasions of the presidential candidates concerning the nation's comparable crisis. An introduction to California's crisis, and Governor Wilson's response, is that ''you better shape up'' letter to him. It is from a third-grader.

Sacks of such letters have been produced in a propaganda exercise the Los Angeles teachers' union is pleased to call a ''civics lesson.'' The union's leader says the students ''feel cheated'' by the state budget. Sure, they probably talk of little else.

The education lobby's sense of limitless entitlement is apparent in the shrill denunciations of the budget that closed a $10.7 billion gap without tax increases. It reduced the level of benefits -- for the elderly, blind, disabled, poor, street repair, bridge maintenance and much else -- but it maintains the per-pupil spending level while accommodating this year's enrollment growth of more than 200,000 -- more students than are in New Hampshire's or Hawaii's schools.

Actually, total state spending, counting the dedicated revenues of the ''special funds'' (for highways, etc.) will increase by $430 million. But the general fund has been cut as Governor Wilson faces the fact that demography is destiny.

California's ''dependency ratio'' -- the ratio of population under 18 and over 64 to the working (18-64) group -- is rising here while falling in the rest of the nation. Hence there is an ominously changing ratio of taxpayers to ''tax receivers,'' defined as participants in the state's costliest programs, such as students, prisoners, welfare and medical beneficiaries. These programs take 91 percent of the general fund.

The number of tax receivers is growing faster than the number of taxpayers. Indeed, there recently has been a net migration from the state of high-earning (and highly taxed) people age 45 to 64.

During this decade, kindergarten through 12th grade enrollments may increase three times faster than the working-age population. The taxpayers already are burdened. The corporate tax burden is the nation's fifth-highest. The income tax -- the nation's most steeply progressive -- is the eighth-highest. State and local sales taxes reach 8.5 percent in some counties. In 1991, Governor Wilson cooperated -- reluctantly -- in enactment of the largest tax increase in the history of any state.

So what are public-employees' unions and other advocates for tax receivers advocating? Proposition 167. It is on the November ballot and would increase taxes on businesses and affluent individuals.

Governor Wilson's better idea, Proposition 165, would give governors power to make certain budget cuts when (as in 16 of the past 20 years) the budget is late. And it would cut all welfare payments by 10 percent, and cut by 15 percent benefits going to those who have been receiving benefits through Aid to Families with Dependent Children for more than six months.

California's welfare caseload, growing at a rate four times faster even than the state's burgeoning population, currently has average monthly payments ($663) about 83 percent higher than the national average ($361). When other non-cash benefits are added, a welfare recipient who today takes a job paying $1,200 a month can actually be $150 worse off than he would be on welfare.

In 1980 there were 6.9 taxpayers for every recipient of AFDC. If current trends continue, by the year 2000 the ratio will be 2.9 to one. To combat the trends, Proposition 165 would discourage ''welfare shopping.'' About 36 percent of new welfare recipients come from the 10 states with the lowest benefits. Families

moving to California would receive, for the first 12 months, welfare grants no larger than those paid in the state they came from.

California's welfare grants are, Mr. Wilson says, three and a half times those of Texas, double those of neighboring Arizona, double the average of the 10 most populous states. Even with the cuts made by the new ''draconian'' budget, California's grants are higher than those of all states but Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont. If Proposition 165 is enacted, the grants will still be 60 percent larger than those of the 10 most populous states.

In the 1980s, California experienced an 83 percent increase in teen-age pregnancies. Half the women now on welfare first became pregnant as teen-agers. Proposition 165 aims to modify behavior. Teen-age parents on welfare would get an additional $50 a month as long as they are progressing through high school but would lose $50 -- a $100 incentive -- if they drop out.

And grants will not be increased for additional children born to mothers already on welfare. Governor Wilson says this idea comes from a black legislator from Camden, New Jersey, who said it was just elemental fairness to working parents who are too hard-pressed to start or enlarge families. Furthermore, under Proposition 165 after six months on welfare the grant would be reduced for families with an adult able to work.

California's crisis is taking a terrible toll on many people but it also is eliciting something simply not seen nowadays in Washington -- hard choices about grim facts. Why? Because Governor Wilson's back is to a useful wall: He is constitutionally required to balance the budget. And because he understands the necessity of fighting arrogant lobbies that conscript elementary-school pupils into political battles.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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