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Such a system is still a non-starter with many poverty advocates, who argue that the needy require point-of-sale relief. Well, fair enough. "With technology the way that it is today, we ought to be able to deliver tax relief in ways other than just sending people a chunk of money when they file their returns," notes Kirk Stark, a UCLA law professor and tax expert. That could include a system akin to federal food stamps, or a state-issued card. "This could all be done electronically. This ought to be possible."
Politics is, after all, the art of the possible. But Stark issues a huge caveat — he dwells in academia, not politics. In California, such drastic alterations to the tax system would necessitate a constitutional amendment. A ballot measure, meanwhile, would require citizens to voluntarily subject themselves to taxation on food items long exempt — and now considered sacrosanct — while withstanding howls that this would equate to a middle-class tax hike.
Admittedly, a setup like Hawaii's is not perfect. "But the perfect is the opposite of the good," argues Pomp. "If you try to get it exactly perfect you do nothing. You're paralyzed." Actually, not quite — things can always get worse.
No politician unwilling to be immolated by powerful anti-taxation forces would propose widening California's tax base, even if that means lowering its tax rate. Yet the opposite route has long been the state's go-to quick revenue-generator. Too bad: Former California Franchise Tax Board head Jerry Goldberg notes that keeping the tax base narrow and hiking up the rate — as we've done — is far more regressive than doing the opposite.
Maybe we don't care so much about being regressive after all.
In 2007, Jim Ayers learned that his elderly neighbor at the Lawrence Hotel was storing a World War II-era Japanese mortar shell in his room. Ayers promptly phoned police and led them to the live explosive. Had it gone off — and it may well have as it continued to deteriorate — it would have blown the building apart.
Ayers is a no-frills kind of guy, so it's a good bet he celebrated his good fortune in not being vaporized at one of his two favorite restaurants — The Lafayette or The Manor House — with "the usual," a ground beef steak.
"I like a big ol' hunk like that," he says, holding his hands a rather large steak-sized length apart. "A baked potato or mashed potatoes, Jell-O or pudding for dessert — and what I can't finish I can wrap it up, bring it back home, and slap together some sandwiches."
That he's being taxed at a relatively high clip pains him. So does the demise of some of his favorite Tenderloin restaurants, which have been replaced by faux working-class joints serving $10 burgers — and that's before tax. "The taxes — it doesn't make sense," he says. "At least not to me. But I don't like to get involved with politics." Like food from the wrong restaurant in Ayers' neighborhood, "it hurts my insides."