We, The People

This is the third piece of a weekly series in which the Progressive Jewish Alliance looks at the propositions on this year's California ballot in light of the weekly Torah portion.

We, the people of California, are dizzy with déjà vu. Each year, our state government passes a budget that cuts public spending and gives tax breaks to corporations. Each year, polls such as the recent study by the Pew Center on the States, reveal that a majority of Californians would approve increased taxes if the money was used efficiently to bolster education, health and human services. A related poll by the Public Policy Institute of California shows that voters also believe corporations do not pay their fair share. Yet, each year we end up with a budget that drastically cuts public spending and that holds taxes neutral or decreases them.

Why can't the people of California get what we want?

Every year, the majority of legislators submit thoughtful proposals that balance public services with fair contributions -- that is, taxes -- from people and businesses that can afford them.  Every year, a minority of legislators holds up the process and extracts concessions from public services and reduces the percentage of profits that their corporate sponsors must contribute.  This is because, when it comes to the California budget, a two-thirds rather than a simple majority vote is needed.

This brings us to this week's Torah portion, Va'eira.  Va'eira recounts the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is best known for how it is mistakenly cited, as a condemnation of homosexuality. Its true relevance lies in its condemnation of selfishness. Jewish commentators observe: "Some say, 'Mine is mine and yours is yours.' This is an ordinary trait. But some say, this is a trait of Sodom." (Pirkei Avot 5:12.) "Pride, fullness of bread, and careless ease was in her... neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy (Ezek. XVI, 49)," teaches Rabbi Eleazer in Midrash Rabah. These cities sought to bar travel through their land and thereby avoid sharing their wealth with the less fortunate. (Sanhedrin 109a.) As an allegory for modern times, this story teaches us that a society without social solidarity destroys itself.

We are reminded of these texts now, as our state faces a grave crisis and, with the election, gives us a chance to take some steps toward repair.  This year, in California, we have a chance to change the way our budget is decided. 

Proposition 25 would allow the state budget to be passed by a simple majority of both houses of the legislature instead of the two-thirds vote that is now required. In addition, the measure requires the permanent forfeiture of all legislator salaries and living expenses for every day the budget is overdue. Right now, those payments are merely suspended until the budget passes.

Proposition 26, on the other hand, would amend California's Constitution so that certain regulatory fees would be redefined as taxes. This means that changes to those fees would require approval by a two-thirds supermajority either in the legislature or through the ballot box. Government pays for important programs like state parks, health inspections, recycling, and roads for new subdivisions. As private citizens and business people, we pay these fees when we enter a state park, own a restaurant, buy a beverage or develop real estate. Other fees help clean up oil spills or offset the adverse affects of tobacco use. Repeal of these fees would cost $1 billion a year.

From the Talmud, we learn that, in Sodom: "A certain maiden gave some bread to a poor man, [hiding it] in a pitcher. When the matter became known, they daubed her with honey and placed her on the parapet of the wall, and the bees came and consumed her." (Sanhedrin 109b.) As our rabbis teach, that was the last straw for God. That was why Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed.

Propositions 25 and 26 force us to face serious questions about how we, the people of California, think our state should be run, about what are value are:

  • Are we willing to change the rules of the game?
  • Are we willing to stop demanding sacrifices from the public and those who serve her without appropriate sacrifices from the corporations that continue to reap record profits during this recession?
  • Are we willing force a more balanced and ethical approach to our budget?

 If the answer is yes, we must pass Prop 25 and reject Prop 26.