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Common Cents 

The Chronicle should stop the dubious "news stories" and openly rail against a sales tax hike that hurts its major advertisers -- and slaughters the poor

Wednesday, Jan 22 2003
There are few vocations less appreciated, yet more essential to the launching of the modern era, than that of the pamphleteer.

Two hundred twenty-seven years ago Thomas Paine, with his pamphlets Common Sense, The Crisis Papers, and Rights of Man, gave the struggle for American independence a crystalline moral conscience. A decade later, propagandist Abbé Sieyès created the opening manifesto of the French Revolution by outlining the complaints and rights of the Third Estate. A century later still, Charles Taze Russell founded the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, which to this day exposes millions of dinnertime suburbanites to the insights of the Jehovah's Witnesses faith.

And last week, pamphleteer Phil Bronstein, with his organ the San Francisco Chronicle, defended the interests of his large retail anchor-client advertisers, attacking a proposed increase in the state sales tax with a ginned-up front-page story headlined "Californians duck sales tax by shopping across border in Oregon."

Clearly our local daily newspaper was carrying on a noble tradition, and for a noble cause: Gray Davis' proposal two weeks ago to hike the state sales tax is perhaps the most lily-livered, anti-poor, anti-economic-recovery measure he could have put forward as a way to close California's massive budget gap. To quote a 2002 statement from former gubernatorial candidate Richard Riordan, who, had he won the primary, might have tempted me to vote for my first-ever Republican: "The sales tax is the most regressive of all taxes and impacts poor and middle-class families the most."

But just as the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society promotes salvation through biblical truth, successful pamphleteering requires that a tract's message be based, at least to some extent, on relevant facts. Sadly, "Californians duck sales tax ..." fails in this regard.

The article, displayed across the bottom of the front page of last Tuesday's paper, was based on the premise that Gov. Davis' proposal to increase sales tax by 1 percent could send more residents of Siskiyou County -- the desolate mountainous region that hugs the Oregon border -- shopping in Medford. The underlying message, emphasized by the subhead "State Budget Crunch," was that Davis' sales tax increase might harm the California economy by sending state residents shopping elsewhere. The article then went on, in 1,000 words or so, to tell the tales of various Siskiyou families who drive to Medford to buy sundries.

There is, however, no fathomable definition by which this might be considered a "news" story. During my Siskiyou County childhood 30 years ago, all residents of that isolated region traveled to Medford, the only even-nearly-metropolitan area within 100 miles, to shop. This was true a generation back, two generations back; hell, given the plethora of bargains available in Medford, I wouldn't be surprised if Trinity and Siskiyou Indians made the trip north to trade with the Umpquas and Suislaws 150 years ago.

"If you were going to get tires, you'd go to Medford," my dad said when I called him to check my memory of early-1970s shopping trips. "And of course staples; if you wanted to buy motor oil, and you wanted to buy several cases, you'd go up there. Also, it just took us away for a day. Scott Valley and Yreka were kind of boring, if you recall."

If there is one state in the union that doesn't risk driving its population to shop elsewhere with high sales taxes, it's California. Our borderlands are desolate, unpopulated; the few residents living in those areas already shop in, for example, Reno, South Lake Tahoe, and Medford.

But that doesn't mean a sales tax increase is good for California. Where are the great pamphleteers -- the Thomas Paineses, the Charles Taze Russells -- now that our state and generation need them?

We need an epistolary champion to combat what appears to be the dissolution of all that is decent in America and California: Just as the country at large prepares for an ill-advised war, Gov. Gray Davis introduces a budget seemingly designed to flush the rest of us down the toilet, while protecting political patrons such as the prison guards' union.

We need Phil Bronstein, pamphleteer.

Gray Davis' various "solutions" to the budget disaster he created almost define the notion of political cowardice. Specifically, the proposal to increase the sales tax puts Davis' core traits on near-perfect display: The idea is both devious and nefarious. Under the proposed increase, the tax on a children's book that costs $10 would only be about 85 cents -- an amount that seems inconsequential, at first glance. But over the course of a year, the one-cent increase would cost the typical mid-income California family around $250. The seemingly invisible surcharges on things such as soap, diapers, shoes, school supplies, toilet paper, appliances, and other basic products make up a portion of poorer households' income that is six times greater than that of wealthier families, according to a 1996 study.

Davis' other budget-balancing proposals are equally morbid.

After a decade of seeing their budgets ransacked by a series of unfounded mandates sent down by the likes of Davis and Pete Wilson, California county governments are all but bankrupt. Already, poor rural counties such as Siskiyou, Shasta, Tehama, Placer, Modoc, etc., etc., are too poor to afford dog pounds, libraries, parole officers, nursing home regulators, or any such other luxuries.

In 1992, Wilson shifted more than $3 billion in property taxes from local governments to schools, thereby allowing the state to reduce school aid and balance its own budget. Davis has proposed further soaking counties by shifting programs for child welfare, home care for the disabled, substance abuse, and other state services to the counties.

The idea of slashing junior college budgets by a possible $403.8 million, meanwhile, suggests that the Governor's Office has become a humanitarian vacuum, a heartless accountant's office completely bereft of social ideals. For me, California's community college system has long represented an almost perfect articulation of the American idea that everybody deserves a second chance. Because of the state's huge, low-cost community college system, in California you didn't have to be born to success; you could even be a divorced, penniless 42-year-old mother of three and still dream of a cheap education (or re-education) and, ultimately, a dignified job. During the past two decades, because of state neglect, the community college system has descended into a network of filthy-carpeted, poorly staffed charnel houses. If adopted by the Legislature, Davis' juco budget cuts would provide the coup de grâce to a system that once was the envy of the nation.

More notable for its cynicism than the governor's proposed tax hikes and funding decreases is Davis' refusal to cut one certain portion of the state budget. When choosing ways to change state spending to close a $30 billion-plus shortfall, the governor would have been wise to review a California State Auditors Report issued just six months ago identifying a "costly labor agreement" that "raises both fiscal and safety concerns." The report described a grotesque sweetheart deal between the state and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association that gives prison guards a raise (as other state employees face pay cuts and layoffs) and that costs California $518 million each year. For Davis, though, the math is simple: The guard union contributed $251,000 to his gubernatorial campaign. Davis not only refused to follow the lead of other cash-strapped states that cut prison spending. In the face of record budget deficits, he actually proposed to increase elements of the correction budget.

Since I had my father on the phone, I thought I'd ask him about the prison guards' new labor deal and their patron in the Statehouse. Dad, you see, used to be a correctional officer at San Quentin.

"The first thing I'd cut is those guys," Dad said. Then he explained why: "A lot of correctional officers are just sadists. They come out of the military, they've got 20 years in that kind of institution, and they need to get next to something that's stratified. I just think that for the governor to say that it's for public safety is just ludicrous.

"I'll tell you something, if they lower the guards' wages -- as they must for everybody in the state government, really -- the correctional officers have such a good deal, they won't go anywhere. If they did, there would be hundreds, thousands of people to replace them."

Just over 200 years ago, when abusive rulers threatened to make life intolerable for citizens in France and the American Colonies, champions like Paine and Sieyès picked up their pens and made history. Paine's Common Sense sold 150,000 copies almost immediately. Today, as our illegitimate ruler George Bush prepares to commit lives and treasure to ego-driven war and our governor prepares to protect his political friends at the expense of the rest of us -- and especially the poor -- we need similar champions. I nominate the Chronicle because, well, I've been sadly watching our hometown newspaper try and fail to enter the big time ever since I was a kid.

Attacking a sales tax head-on would certainly please advertisers: Sales taxes are paid, after all, at Macy's, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Williams-Sonoma, and no retailer wants the government to raise the effective price of his goods. A Paine-like circulation boost driven by the crusade against higher sales taxes might also please the advertisers by attracting new readers. In terms of a percentage of total American population, 150,000 copies of a 1770s publication would now equal a circulation of around 15 million.

By becoming the organ of the Frente Californiana de Revolución, the Chronicle could transform itself into a vital, even indispensable, read.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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