California is a place unlike any other on the Globe. It boasts perhaps the greatest natural resources of any state along with shining high-tech industries. However, like many good economic stories, government policies threaten its future.
Indeed, its government has made California unsustainable.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. As the 1960s came to a close in California, it had a population of nearly twenty million. In the decade before, its economic strength afforded the construction of a vast State Water Project and higher education system that was the envy of the world. Matched with a majestic and trade friendly coastline, along with visionary business leaders, California’s future seemed secured.
No more – and here are the four major reasons California is at such great risk.
California’s Infrastructure Deficit.
That vast State Water Project was designed for a population not much greater than 25 million. Today, on any one day, California verges on nearly 40 million people within its borders and is projected to reach 50 million if not higher.
In the last 50 years, however, California’s infrastructure needs have been ignored.
The state’s water system remains essentially is as it was in the 1960s. As for its roads, a recent headline declared that “California’s roads are some of the poorest in the nation and rapidly getting worse.”
According to a 2017 infrastructure report card:
“Driving on roads in need of repair in California costs each driver $844 per year, and 5.5% of bridges are rated structurally deficient. Drinking water needs in California are an estimated $44.5 billion, and wastewater needs total $26.2 billion. 678 dams are considered to be high-hazard potential. The state’s schools have an estimated capital expenditure gap of $3.2 billion.”
In 2017, California’s Governor Jerry Brown estimated California was “facing $187 billion in unmet infrastructure needs.” However, the Bay Area Council Economic Institute “pegs the cost of California’s unfunded infrastructure needs at up to $737 billion and possibly as much as $765 billion.” Who is right? It’s hard to know but all of those figures are more than daunting.
How much in debt are the California governments? That’s hard to know too. According to a January 2017 study, “California state and local governments owe $1.3 trillion as of June 30, 2015.” The study was based on “a review of federal, state and local financial disclosures.”
In other words, that $1.3 trillion in debt is the amount to which California governments admit. Other studies believe it to be more. Indeed, one study says it is actually $2.3 trillion and a recent Hoover Institute stated that there is over $1 trillion in pension liability alone, or $76,884 per household. Incredibly, there are 4 million current pension beneficiaries, a number that continues to grow and which exceeds the total population of 22 states.
What’s the right number? Apparently, it is so large it is hard to accurately estimate. In every case, the number is staggering.
California’s Taxes and Regulations.
When you consider the California legal system and its regulatory system, inclusive of the world’s most comprehensive global warming law, California is likely the most regulated state in the Country, if not the World.
California also is among the highest taxed states in the nation. California has the highest income tax rates. The top rate is 13.3%. The next closest top tax rate is in Oregon at 9.9%. However, Oregon does not have a sales tax. California has the 10th highest sales tax.
What is remarkable about the California income tax isn’t just that it has the highest rate, it is how little income it takes, just above $52,000, to qualify for California rate of 9.3%. Given the high cost of living in California, that means many Californians are subject to that rate.
On the other hand, for more than a decade, less than 150,000 of California’s 35+ million people pay half of all of its income tax – a highly imbalanced system.
Now, many might think California needs all of those taxes given its infrastructure deficit and debt. The problem with that notion is that those prolonged high taxes, debt burden and regulations limit California’s economic future. After all, why would businesses locate in California in the future with the impending tax-aggeddon that must be in the offing?
Also, California’s middle class has been hollowed. A recent CNBC headline read: "Californians fed up with housing costs and taxes are fleeing state in big numbers." Where are they going? Many have left for low tax states offering more jobs than California.
They have been replaced by those taking advantage of California’s magnet government policies, which increase California’s long-term spending needs. For those that remain, according to Smartasset.com "California has the highest debt-to-income ratio in the country.”
Little wonder, the demographer Joel Kotkin concluded that “the state is run for the very rich, the very poor, and the public employees.” It is also how California found itself with the worst poverty problem and why “California ranks dead last among U.S. states in quality of life, according to a study by U.S. News.”
All of which brings us to the number one reason California is not sustainable.
The California Governments.
You would think all of the above would have government officials deeply worried. So much so that they would cut back everywhere they could. If you thought that, you would be wrong – very wrong.
California spends nearly $200 billion a year on budget and even more off-budget in the form of programs paid with bonds, i.e. debt financing. As for the pension debt, of that nearly $200 billion, in the most recent budget less than $2 billion was allocated to paying down that pension debt. More than that was spent this year on a high-speed rail project currently estimated to cost $70 billion and which no one seems to want.
Beyond that, as I wrote earlier, California is moving ever farther left and wants the nation to pay for it. The next generation of leaders, Gavin Newsom, Kevin de Leon, Xavier Becerra and Kamala Harris are significantly to the Left of the old (and “conservative” by comparison) Jerry Brown and Diane Feinstein. That new generation of leaders are supported by an influx of friendly voters who are replacing those that are leaving.
All of those leaders support the dozens of lawsuits brought by the Democrat Attorney General Xavier Becerra against the Trump Administration. Many describe those lawsuits as part of California Democrats resistance movement – a resistance designed to result in political gains more than policy benefits.
Gavin Newsom, Kevin de Leon, Xavier Becerra and Kamala Harris also support some form of significantly expanded healthcare benefits if not universal healthcare – which is estimated to cost as much as $400 billion a year (that is not a typo). All of them support the California magnet policies that attracted so many of those in California illegally. In fact, there is no indication that the next generation has any concern for the future debt. Instead, they support higher taxes.
What taxes will those be? Within a decade you can expect higher income taxes and sales taxes. There is always a movement afoot to do away with California’s landmark property tax protection known as Prop 13. You also can expect a service tax – a tax on lawyers and accountants as well as hairdressers and gardeners. That service tax would be on top of the existing income tax. Beyond all of that, sooner or later an asset tax will be proposed. California counties already collect an asset tax on businesses. Look for that to be proposed statewide as California lurches ever farther to the Left and if forced to confront future debt.
Is there a silver lining in this story?
If you are living in one of the 49 other states, you should learn from the lesson that is California. If you are living in California, there is always the lesson of how Michigan came to be governed by a more centrist government. Of course, that came after the failure of the prior government. For now, however, for all its concern for sustainable foods and products, California is on a high-speed rail to unsustainability.
Tom Del Beccaro is the author of The Divided Era - a historical perspective about why there is so much division in America today.