San Bernardino Shouldn't Blame State for Bankruptcy

Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. And blaming the state is becoming one of the first refuges of bankrupt California cities.

The latest is the city of San Bernardino, which is facing bankruptcy. The reasons for that bankruptcy are at once numerous -- and not entirely clear, given considerable mystery about the city's budget accounting in recent years.

But city officials are already offering one explanation that doesn't hold much water: the state pushed us into this.

Local elected officials who complain about a lack of state money have things backwards. The state of California is relatively spare in its spending, compared to national averages. California's local officials are, by contrast, big spenders, at or near the national lead in compensation for local workers, especially law enforcement.

Since 70+ of the state budget goes to locals, this transfer of money is literally a transfer from the thrifty and austere (the state) to the spendthrifts (locals). Since the passage of Prop 13 more than 30 years ago, the state has been effectively bailing out the locals, who lost control of the property taxes they once controlled.

Local elected officials overspend in California because the system encourages it. The locals don't have the power to raise taxes themselves (only local voters and state elected officials and voters can raise taxes), so they're spenders. They don't have to take the step of raising additional money for the programs they manage.

Whatever the other reasons for its bankruptcy, you can safely know this: San Bernardino is going bankrupt in spite of state aid, not because of a lack of it.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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