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Katrina, and the Opportunists
Californians, beware of the state's bureaucratic scam artists...

[by Jon Coupal] 9/13/05

Across the nation, Americans are responding generously to aid the victims of hurricane Katrina. Fortunately, most people will give to well-established charitable organizations that will use donations to provide maximum benefit to disaster victims.

Sadly, not all pleas for aid are legitimate. The folks at web-based warn that whenever there is a major natural or other disaster, scammers begin sending out charity relief scams within just a couple of hours. It seems the internet has become a vehicle for high-tech looting. Already there are reports of phony websites and deceitful e-mail spam sent by those who see to take advantage of that basic American quality, the desire to help those in need.

Jon Coupal

Jon Coupal is an attorney and president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association -- California's largest taxpayer organization with offices in Los Angeles and Sacramento. [go to website] [go to Coupal index]

Disasters and the associated scams are no strangers to Californians. If you can name a disaster, we've got it: Earthquakes, fires and, of course, floods. Katrina has put into focus California's vulnerability to the latter, especially in the central valley. Anyone residing in this region or along our coastal rivers knows that levees are not just for Cajuns. A levee failure here could result in scenes similar to those broadcast from New Orleans on the nightly news.

The scams are there, too. Fly-by-night charities after earthquakes, shady contractors, and insurance fraud are all present in the Golden State after disaster strikes.

But there is one kind of scam for which most Californians are ill-prepared. Specifically, taxpayers must be prepared for the urgent cries of some politicians who will see the threat of disasters as a golden opportunity to raise taxes. While those who perpetually favor higher taxes may not have the criminal intent of internet scammers or unlicensed contractors, their cost to the public can be much greater.

Would it cost a great deal to be fully prepared to respond to natural and manmade disasters? Of course. But government's first course of action should be to prioritize existing revenue. This means fully funding public safety services, including disaster preparedness. After that, funding can go to government's less critical functions. Not enough money to fund the more mundane services? Ask for more money and let the voters decide.

Recently, Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss was being interviewed on a popular Southern California talk radio show. When one of the hosts asked why the most important things weren't given top priority for city spending, and higher taxes put to a vote for less critical spending items that need attention, the councilman responded that no one would vote for that stuff. This insults the intelligence of the average citizen. Voters will support those services they believe to be important, and they don't have to be a matter of life or death.

Just look at school bonds. These bonds usually receive a vote of at least 60 percent, sometimes nearly 80 percent, even though most of those who are voting do not have children in school. If voters do decide to turn down a request for more funds for a service, perhaps that service isn't as important as officials suppose.

Taking voters and taxpayers out of the decision making process is the wrong answer to the question. Earlier this year, the Department of Water Resources advanced a proposal to deal with the maintenance of 1,600 miles of levies under its jurisdiction. But part of that proposal involved a change to the California Constitution to take away the right of local voters to vote on proposed taxes to pay for the maintenance. That is a non-starter for those of us who believe that taxpayers are able to distinguish good proposals from bad. Fortunately, that proposal died this legislative session but, with Katrina fresh in everyone's memory, some form of levy maintenance program will surely be proposed in the next session.

As California starts the debate over levy maintenance, there are some tough issues to be resolved. What is the responsibility of the state? How about local government? Will the state continue to be subject to lawsuits from property owners whose land gets flooded? To what extent should those who choose to live in a flood zone expect help from government?

These are legitimate questions. But taxpayers have a question, too. If levy maintenance is important for public safety, why is it not a higher priority for the state's general fund?

Prioritization is not rocket science. There is no reason that government -- that is there to meet the vital needs of the people -- should not go through the same process that is part of life for every family in California. Families budget for food and mortgage or rent. Then comes clothing and transportation. Next may be savings. Further down the list is discretionary spending on travel and leisure activities. When times are tough, most of us would not go hungry so that we could continue to save for an Hawaiian vacation. Yet when government officials intentionally withhold funding for public safety services this is essentially what they are doing.

Let's all learn from the lesson of Katrina by increasing our level of disaster preparedness as well as guarding against being taken advantage of by those who are constantly seeking to increase our already considerable tax burden. CRO

Jon Coupal is an attorney and President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

copyright 2005 Howard Jarvis Taxpayers association



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