» California Governor proposes cutting state support for transit to balance the budget.
The most stormy period of the recession may have passed us by, but states and cities continue to face the devastating consequences of the millions of jobs lost over the past two years. Unlike the national government, which is able to maintain a budgetary deficit, lower-level governments in the U.S. federal system have a legal requirement to produce a balanced budget each year — a difficult task to fulfill when raising taxes is political suicide even as citizens expect a minimum standard of minimum public service.
As falling tax returns have become standard, that’s bad news. It’s especially troubling for transit systems in California, which may face a collective $1 billion cut in support if Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger gets his way on the state’s next budget.
California’s legislators faced down a massive budget deficit earlier this year, closing a gap of $43 billion in February and $26 billion more in July only by cutting aid to schools, health care institutions, and prisons. For next year, it has another $21 billion for which to account, and there are fewer and fewer places from which to skim the fat.
The Governor is expected to argue that the state’s commitment to mass transit ought to be one such casualty when he announces his proposed budget early next year. His plan would transfer about $1 billion in annual funds currently devoted to public transportation operations to other essential services, basically leaving local transit agencies to fully sponsor their own services. The gap would have an immediately destructive effect: Los Angeles’ Metro transit agency, for instance, has come to rely on $50-100 million in yearly state appropriations. This is compared to the system’s roughly $3.8 billion budget for FY 2010; in other words, this is no minor loss, and the same principle applies to the state’s other bus and train networks.
Mr. Schwarzenegger has been fighting to reduce funding for transit agencies for years, despite his claims to be a “green” politician at the recent Copenhagen Climate Conference. Since 2007, he has led the state legislature in redistributing transit money towards other programs, though that effort was declared unlawful by the State Supreme Court in June, leading to the repayment of $3 billion in missing tax revenues to needy transit systems.
Another such transfer would be similarly against the law, so the Governor has invented what his staff sees as a novel policy to get around the issue: get rid of the source of the problem. Mr. Schwarzenegger would simply eliminate 5¢ of the state’s sales tax currently pointed towards transit programs and replace it with a new excise tax of an equal sum designed to go to the general fund. Protections for highway spending, of course, would remain entirely in place. The Governor plans to ask Washington for aid, but no support has yet materialized. Offshore oil digging is an additional element of the plan.
Whether the Governor will get his way in his last year of office is up for question — particularly since he currently has a 27% approval rating. Yet the legislature will have to find spending cuts somewhere, since the assembly’s Democratic majority isn’t large enough to vote for increased taxes that would be necessary to prevent any service reductions. California’s constitution makes it very difficult for the legislature to agree to new sources of revenue.
The proposal would strike at the heart of the state’s transit systems after a difficult year. Generally poor economic conditions resulted in an overall decline in ridership nationwide of 3.8% in the first nine months of the year, according to the American Public Transportation Association. That statistic will not improve if transit agencies continue to make service cuts as a result of fewer revenues — before the state cuts spending any further. Already planned for next year: AC Transit in Oakland will reduce operations by 8%, San Francisco’s Muni will increase fares, San Jose VTA will delay the purchase of dozens of buses, and San Diego will cut more than half its services on Sundays. This is no easy time for the state to reduce aid.
Last Christmas, I wrote of the need to use transit as a tool to encourage social justice, and I maintain that public transportation must fulfill a role beyond that of simply increasing “mobility.” Reducing public transportation service is an outrageous idea when driving is simply too expensive for a large percentage of the population, as the environmental consequences of carbon emissions mount, when the lives of our cities demand alternatives to the automobile.
California’s predicament is no easy one: it could maintain state financing for transit, but it would have to reduce spending somewhere else, probably just as important. The state’s politicians have a responsibility to their constituents: to be courageous enough to fight for increased taxes to pay for the vital needs of their communities. That may require altering the constitution, or it may necessitate convincing a few Republicans of the need to augment revenues. Either way, something must be done; a cutback in services is no way to celebrate the new year.