Central Valley

'Porn tax' shows how bad state's budget is

Solving this year's state budget deficit will require some creative solutions. Democrats and Republicans agree on that.

But in an example of just how dysfunctional the state's finances are, take a look at one bill co-sponsored by Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Livingston.

The bill, AB 2914, would levy a tax on all services defined as adult entertainment, everything from entry fees at a gentleman's club to blue videos at your corner store.

Dubbed, naturally, a "porn tax," the bill would send revenues that could be used, in vague language, on anything that would address the societal costs of adult entertainment. That could be education, health and human services, environment (Paper used for men's magazines? Air pollution from cars driving to strip clubs? OK, maybe not).

In short, because these revenues would go to the state's general fund, they'd be a nice basket of cash for whatever could be justified, and that's what makes them of interest this year, with a projected deficit of about $15 billion.

Democrats won't agree to the kinds of sizable cuts that would bring the budget into balance, and Republicans have declared tax increases dead ends.

That would seem to include a tax on porn. But few are going to come out of the woodwork to defend purveyors of adult entertainment as overtaxed.

And though businesses that would be affected have raised a stink, it's fair to say they're not all that warmly embraced by legislators in either party. It doesn't look so great if your re-election campaign is underwritten by Larry Flynt.

Going after the politically and socially unpopular for money is nothing new in state politics. Ask anyone who smokes.

The idea of using a tax on a commodity to address the ills created by that commodity makes sense. Few would argue that smoking does not have an effect on public health, and when cigarette taxes were first proposed, paying for health programs aimed at smoking was the way they were sold.

Over time, that focus has wavered a bit, and plenty of cigarette taxes now pay for programs with a dubious connection, such as after-school activities for youngsters.

With the effects of adult entertainment even more nebulous to define, count on more mysterious rationales for why buying or renting X-rated videos means potholes being filled on a state highway.

Then again, you could argue state legislators don't have much of a choice.

California gets revenue largely through income taxes, corporate taxes and sales taxes. That means that when the economy goes into the tank, as is the case now, the state's budget feels it.

The ballot initiative process, which binds the hands of legislators further with voter-approved mandates for how to spend tax dollars, doesn't help. Neither does entrenchment by both parties on the no cuts and no taxes orthodoxies.

This is a problem voters created. Term limits mean candidates, in hand-drawn districts, need to play to their base to get re-elected or elected to another office. That encourages ideological rigidity.

Many residents think of good universities and lots of state parks as a fact of life in California, as much as sunny weather and cheeseburgers at a drive-through. But someone has to pay for that quality of life stuff, though the sunshine is (for now) free.

If state residents still want it all, or even part of it all, but don't want to pay more for it than they pay now, and many would like to pay less, passing a tax on blow-up dolls is one solution, admittedly a skewed one.

And it's also how you get proposals such as Gov. Schwarzenegger's to borrow against lottery revenues, with a 1-cent increase in the sales tax if voters don't support his lottery change in November.

Keep California's tangle of state government responsibility in mind over the next few months, as budget talks take on the speed and urgency of molasses flowing uphill.

This is the system we have. We might not have asked for it in so many words, but we're the only ones who can ask for something different.

If we decide to push for improvements, the entire state -- porn fans included -- will thank us.

WATCH THIS: The California secretary of state's office listed this interesting donation last week: $7,200 from the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians to the Stanislaus Republican Central Committee.

What makes that curious is that in Stanislaus County, no races for the fall -- as of now -- look like the kind of barnburners that would require an infusion of funds from the central committee.

The donation could be intended for a race elsewhere, where the Chukchansi might be unable to contribute directly.

Still, where the central committee sends its donations in the next few months could bear close observation.