Watchdogging Government By BECKY O'MALLEY

Tuesday April 12, 2005

The front page of Sunday’s Contra Costa Times featured an impressive team effort by reporters Jessica Guynn, Lisa Vorderbruggen and John Simerman, documenting, in the words of Guynn’s lead paragraph, that “a state law to help poor people in California has turned into a tax loophole almost as big as the city of Oakland.” Their story, which took up three pages and was copiously illustrated with maps, charts and photos, looked at enterprise zones, where businesses get big tax breaks for locating in supposedly poor areas. A variety of points of view were included in the report, but the clear bottom line is that the enterprise zone strategy has become just another of the many mechanisms by which the rich get richer. Cost to California taxpayers, according to a graph of data supplied by the state’s Franchise Tax Board: $179.4 million in lost revenues, with benefits to citizens which, most charitably, can be described as illusory.  

Businesses move around the state in order to grab the tax benefits where they can, but in the long run not much happens to help disadvantaged workers. The story quotes critics as saying “state taxpayers should not subsidize a costly game of musical chairs.” These commentators instead advocate cutting taxes for all businesses which hire workers in target groups, regardless of where they are located.  

In a particularly gutsy move, the CoCo Times editors illustrated the San Jose enterprise zone with a picture of the Knight-Ridder building, headquarters of the paper’s own distant parent corporation and of the flagship San Jose Mercury. The Merc, of course, needs to be in San Jose with or without tax breaks, but Knight-Ridder gladly took the subsidy, and why shouldn’t they? Stockholders have the right to insist that corporations use all the tax breaks they can get, but government doesn’t need to subsidize their profits.  

Keeping track of government largesse to favored corporate constituencies is a classic assignment for newspapers. If it’s not enterprise zones, it’s sports arenas (see Raiders, Oakland) or hotel-conference centers (just defeated—or perhaps just stalled—in Santa Cruz, but still on tap for Berkeley.) But more and more papers seem to be going after the little guy instead of documenting the big-time tax expenditures on behalf of the already privileged. Welfare mothers are a much easier target. The CoCo Times team deserves to win a major award for this piece, which keeps the spotlight where it belongs. 

Our whole news staff at the Planet is smaller than the team which worked just on this story, but in our own way we also try to keep track of what’s going on in government. An example: In Berkeley officials are now trying to play revenue catch-up by a variety of small schemes, including increasing fines for traffic offenses. A citizen acquaintance buttonholed me on the street on Sunday with his tale of woe: He got a $381 fine for “interfering with firefighters”. Sounds serious, right? What actually happened is that he couldn’t hear an oncoming siren and didn’t pull over in time. Could happen to anyone, right? There was no bad outcome, no accident or anything, just his word against that of the officer who gave him the ticket. He appealed, but the traffic commissioner allocates less than two minutes to each appeal—case closed. Four hundred dollars is real money for many people. A letter writer complained about a big fine for parking facing in the wrong direction, a common and harmless local custom in Berkeley in the last thirty years, but now evidently the target of a new “enforcement” effort cynically calculated to raise revenues by any means necessary.  

What’s the connection to enterprise zones? Well, if the state gives away money big-time, localities must look for small-time ways to tax the long-suffering working stiff even more. And often, local pols make lousy choices. Local voters don’t necessarily make the connection between national, state and local policies—they just know that they’re unhappy. 

In order to help us keep track of what’s going on, we’ve decided to offer regular slots in the Planet to two of our most zealous citizen watchdogs. Bob Burnett and Zelda Bronstein have both been active on political fronts themselves, and at the same time have been supplying the Planet with regular lively and literate critiques of what they’ve been seeing as they participate. We think readers will appreciate the opportunity to expect to find their comments in the paper on a regular basis, so we’ve asked them to take responsibility for alternate Tuesday columns. Bob will generally comment on national and sometimes international issues, and Zelda will concentrate on local and sometimes state topics, starting today. As always, their opinions will be strictly their own, not those of the Planet, its owners, management or staff.  

We would welcome more citizen commentators on what’s going on in the other cities we serve up and down the East Bay shore. Planet readership is increasing in many areas, and our staff manages to cover a good part of the news from several cities, but we can’t be everywhere all the time. You can help us get the word out.