Desperation grabs for revenue are nothing new in politics, but California is once again leading the way in creative financing.
To help close yet another gaping budget deficit, now estimated to be $7 billion this year and reach as high as $20 billion next, Sacramento lawmakers have authorized a 10% increase in the amount of taxes withheld from worker paychecks starting November 1 and through 2010. The extra withholding tax will reduce Californians' take-home pay by about $1.7 billion for the year. But the lawmakers say this isn't a tax increase. OK, how about calling it a compulsory interest-free loan from taxpayers to the state?
According to the Franchise Tax Board, 10,004,000 Californians overpaid their state taxes last year and received an average refund of $903. The withholding penalty is expected to snatch between $20 and $90 a month from middle-class families. For those feeling the pinch of recession and living paycheck to paycheck, that penalty will hurt.
Of course, the government is obliged to return this money next spring when workers get their tax refunds, so this is the ultimate budget gimmick. It borrows from taxpayers now and deepens the budget hole next year. And we almost hate to ask: What happens come April if the state doesn't have enough money to pay the tax refunds it owes its citizens? Will taxpayers get IOUs the way state contractors did last year when Sacramento ran out of money?
Meanwhile, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the legislature now face their sixth "extraordinary session" to balance the budget. Income tax rates went up last year by 0.25%, bringing the top rate to 10.55%, but receipts are already coming in $1 billion below projections, according to the state controller.
The politicians could use this continuing crisis as an opportunity to reform the state's tax code with lower rates and fewer deductions and loopholes, as recently proposed by the governor's tax reform commission. But that plan has been panned by the ruling classes in Sacramento. They claim to want to steal only from the rich, but their latest withholding ruse is showing that they'll steal from anyone with a paycheck.