November 9, 2007

Commentary:

Don’t Get Burned Twice

By Jon Coupal

Those who have suffered loss in the fires that have ravaged Southern California could, along with other California citizens across the state, get burned again.

There is no minimizing the extent of the calamity. During the worst of the crisis, nearly one million people were compelled to evacuate their homes. All those who were not in immediate danger had to do to grasp the magnitude of the disaster was to watch the continuous television coverage, or just look out their windows at the smoke on the horizon.

While the vast majority of citizens feel genuine compassion for the victims and admiration for the firefighters who have stood between us and the inferno, there are those who have mixed feelings. These folks may also feel for those who have lost their homes, and in some cases their lives, but they also experience a quiet feeling of elation. These are the members of the political class who see opportunity in misfortune.

The debate has already begun as to what should and could have been done to head off or minimize fire damage. Some have even gone so far as to blame, without evidence, U.S. involvement in Iraq or global warming. But back in the real world, a serious evaluation of our fire suppression techniques and resources is justifiable. And it is certainly appropriate that we look for lessons that will help us reduce future risk.

Unfortunately, it is as certain as night follows day, that prior to thoroughly evaluating any actual need, there will be politicians, bureaucrats and leaders of public safety employee unions who will be advocating new taxes “to keep us safe.” Indeed, an opinion piece in the San Diego newspaper has already blamed Proposition 13 — “which slashed property taxes” — for the inability to organize a more regionalized response to fire dangers. (Never mind that per capita property tax collections in San Diego, even adjusting for inflation, are far higher than they were just prior to Prop. 13).

The appropriate level of service and taxation is always a legitimate subject for public debate. But before we let our emotional reaction to the fires cloud our judgment, we should take a collective deep breath.

Those who want more and higher taxes, which is most of the political establishment, have no shame when it comes to playing on emotions to get taxpayers to open their wallets. Their favorite tools to manipulate votes are children, public safety and natural disasters — an extension of the public safety issue.

Almost everyone can remember being asked to approve a new tax because “it’s for the children.” In recent years, Rob Reiner has backed several tax increase initiatives, one that succeeded and one that failed, that used children in this way.

For tax raisers, anything related to public safety is also considered a good bet to squeeze more from taxpayers. Not long ago, Los Angeles County voters were asked to consider a bump in the sales tax for police. Backers of the higher tax ran a television ad showing a woman and her daughter cowering in their home as someone tried to break in. It was not hard to get the intended message that you or your loved ones would become victims if the new tax did not pass.

Natural disasters have played a major role in the high level of sales taxes all Californians pay today. During the special election of 1993, the Legislature placed on the ballot Proposition 172, a permanent half-cent sales tax increase that would go to local government for public safety, including fire suppression. Ten days before election day, tracking polls showed the measure lagging. Then several major wildfires broke out and made fighting fires a topical issue. The tax promoters seized the opportunity and ran a last-minute television blitz featuring soaring flames and sweating firefighters. The dramatic ad turned the political dynamic on its head and the tax for public safety was approved with 58 percent of the vote.

Ironically, we are all paying more and we still have fires.

Politicians who will propose new taxes in the aftermath of the recent disaster are hoping voters will have forgotten that we are already paying higher taxes for fire protection. Let’s be careful not to get burned again.

Jon Coupal is President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest taxpayer organization — which is dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and promoting taxpayers’ rights.

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