Poodle Prequel: This week’s Angry Poodle column provided for me a painful reminder that there’s no such thing as a slam dunk. In this case, not only did I not know which way the ball was bouncing, I don’t think I even knew what kind of ball it was. Writing under an accelerated Fourth-of-July induced deadline, I assumed I knew how the County Board of Supervisors would vote on the proposed bed tax increase for hotels and motels. I assumed wrong. Contrary to my expectations, the supervisors did not vote in favor of the proposal and opted instead to table the measure before it could suffer a painful demise. The slant of my column was predicated on its presumed passage. Like a whole lot of other people I was caught totally flat-footed. Four votes were needed for passage. Supervisor Joni Gray, a conservative Republican facing opposition in November from the even more conservative Republican Peter Adam, could not vote for the tax increase without giving Adam a free shot. No one expected her to vote for the increase and she proved them right. The big surprise was liberal Democrat Janet Wolf, who got cold feet on the measure and voted against it. As of this writing I remain uncertain what her objections were. Her vote killed the proposal which would have netted the county an additional $1.1 million a year. The big irony is that the proposal was sponsored by Santa Maria Republican Steve Lavanigno, normally a card-carrying anti-tax guy. Lavanigno took a significant risk pushing for a tax increase and was left with nothing tangible to show for it.
E PLURIBUS EXTORTION: We celebrate the 4th of July, the 236th anniversary of our nation’s impregnation, by cursing the Brits — hate ’em all — drinking coffee — because the Brits had the gall to tax our tea to underwrite a global war of imperial expansion (The Seven Years War) and to bail out their failing über-corporation, the East India Trading Company — and blowing shit up — just because we can and it’s fun. A few of us also mark the historic moment by coughing up a few phlegmy fur balls of historical rhetoric like, “Taxation without representation is tyranny.” While this still ranks as one of the greatest bumper stickers to be written before the invention of the automobile, it is utterly beside the point, if not flat-out wrong. In fact, taxation without representation is increasingly the way to go. As the federal government scrambles to pay the crippling costs of waging two imperial wars and underwriting huge tax breaks for the rich, local governments have been hard-pressed to keep potholes filled, cops on the beat, and the mentally ill medicated to the point even they’re no longer troubled by any disturbing historical parallels.
By any reckoning, these are tough times. And when the going gets tough, we stick it to those who can’t defend themselves — the tourists. And why not? The beautiful thing about tourists, aside from their money, is that they can’t vote. At least not here. Hence the growing congestion of proposed bed-tax increases on this November’s ballot. Despite Governor Jerry Brown’s strict admonition that there be no other tax measures on this November’s ballot to compete with his own — such a masterpiece in cynical maneuvers, extortionate threats, and sharp elbows that it inspires perverse hope that California might be governable, after all — there’s no shortage of me-too measures seeking to soak the tourists for the privilege of sleeping in our hotels. The cities of Carpinteria, Goleta, Buellton, and Solvang all have bed-tax increases — each proposing to increase theirs from 10 percent to 12 — on the ballot. And so, too, does the County of Santa Barbara. Campaign experts worry that so many similar measures could engender an epidemic of “tax fatigue” among voters, prompting us to toss out a lot of babies with the bath water and reject anything and everything resembling a tax increase. And this doesn’t even include the two proposed parcel-tax increases upon which the future of k-12 education so desperately rests. It’s a legitimate concern. Adding to it is all the psycho-weirdness surrounding the county supervisors’ proposed bed-tax bump, and I’m not even referring to the eruption of bad blood spilling over between supervisors Janet Wolf and Salud Carbajal, allegedly on the same side of most issues.
Last week, Carbajal lead the successful charge to approve a highly questionable billionaire’s bailout on behalf of Los Angeles developer Rick Caruso, who is unto shopping malls what Walt Disney was to theme parks. To induce Caruso to do what he’d already promised and pledged to do anyway — namely rebuild the long-dark Miramar Hotel on his own dime — the county supes passed an ordinance designed to give Caruso $15 million worth of bed-tax rebates spread out over a 15-year period. That equates to about $1 million a year, though Caruso’s own projections suggest it’s considerably more. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the deal absolutely stinks, just that it smells awfully funny. Perhaps I’ve been poisoned by the bitterness of class envy, but the whole thing strikes me like getting a bonus just for showing up to work. To say Carbajal rammed the deal through is a gross understatement. The ordinance was released on Thursday afternoon, June 21, and approved by a 3-to-2 vote the following Tuesday, the morning of June 26. By county standards, that’s the speed of light. Carbajal’s basic rap is that you can’t lose what you don’t have. The Miramar isn’t generating a dime right now. If by giving Caruso an incentive, he winds up building a new five-star extravaganza for the South Coast, county government will be farting through silk. But should Caruso fail to obtain the financing needed to bring his $170-million plans to fruition — even with this inducement — well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I get that argument. But last week’s vote on the Miramar could pose a big problem for the supes’ decision this week to put a bed-tax hike on the November ballot. It sends a dangerously mixed message. On one hand, we’ve already agreed to give away the store for Caruso. On the other, we need to increase taxes on tourists to pay for essential services. That juxtaposition induces something called cognitive dissonance. Adding to this noise is the fact that the proposed increase in bed taxes will generate an additional $1.1 million for the county. That happens to be almost identical to the amount the county will be “giving away” to Caruso every year for 15 years. No doubt the similarity between these numbers is entirely coincidental. I can almost hear Carbajal object that what I’m talking about is really apples and oranges. I’d suggest the distinction is more akin to that of oranges and tangerines. But once you find yourself forced to engage in such taxonomical hair-splitting, you’ve already lost the war. A confused voter is a no voter. Caruso can prevent some of that confusion by waiting until after the November election before applying for his bed-tax break. Let’s hope he does. As a political operator, Carbajal is normally even shrewder than he is congenial. But in this case, he might be simultaneously too cute by half and too clever for our own good. If that turns out to be the case, Carbajal can say he spared those without representation — the tourists — from the tyrannical boot-heel of increased taxation. And if that’s not cause to celebrate the 4th of July, then what is?