Tax Hike a Lousy Idea

Our view: fiscal discipline is what’s needed at the county
level. A sales tax to fund ongoing programs is a short-term
solution that ignores the systemic problems with a budget that is
not balanced and sound
News that Santa Clara County officials are considering a quarter-cent sales tax to balance the budget concerns us.

While we can’t take a position until the proposal, sketchy now, is fleshed out in more detail, we’re disturbed in principal by the idea of using a special sales tax to pay for ongoing, regular expenditures.

The county sales tax, if supervisors decide to place it on the November ballot, would fund health care, social services and road improvements.

Whatever happened to cutting expenses to make ends meet?

Except perhaps for road improvements, these are regular county expenses, not one-time special expenses and are inappropriate expenditures to fund with a sales tax measure.

We’re not unsympathetic to the county. It faces a $111 million budget deficit. County officials, despite allowing employees to double-dip to serve as election officials on Nov. 8, say there’s no more fat to be cut after $9.1 million has been sliced from the attorney’s office, sheriff’s department, the public health department and aid programs. Those include senior citizen nutrition sites and children’s shelters.

“I have no other place to go,” County Executive Pete Kutras said. “Social services are one of the most difficult places to make cuts.”

In addition, the county’s sales tax proposal potentially makes it much more difficult for the Valley Transportation Authority to pass the rival quarter-cent sales tax its considering placing on the November ballot to pay for the BART-to-San Jose boondoggle.

Initial polling shows the county’s sales tax proposal is more popular with voters than VTA’s proposal. The county would only need 50 percent voter approval to pass, while the VTA must obtain two-thirds approval.

We’ll reserve final judgment until we see what the county’s final proposal is. But we warn voters and county officials that balancing the budget with a special sales tax is a risky fiscal move.

“We don’t control the state, we don’t control the feds, and we certainly don’t control the economy,” District One County Supervisor Don Gage said. “In light of all that, we’re in deep ta-ta right now.”

While Gage is quite correct, it’s important to remember that using a special sales tax to pay for regular county expenses might put the county in even deeper “ta-ta” when that sales tax expires.

Budget cuts are difficult. It’s a nasty job that nobody likes – particularly politicians. But increasing the sales tax to fund regular services without cutting the budget is a short-term solution. Ongoing fiscal discipline is a much better idea.

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