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Jim Boren: Forget about fairness -- tax them all

Maybe the best solution to California's budget mess is to return to the basics of taxation: Make someone else pay.

Let's start with taxing the heck out of the people who are hooked on booze and cigarettes. They have carried us before and now in this time of crisis, let's ask a lot more of them.

They always come through, and the rest of us can have our tax bills subsidized by their addictions. Call it selfish, but even if we push the price of a pack of cigarettes to $40 with massive new taxes, smokers will be beating down the doors of the Cigarette Store for a couple of cartons.

Let's put an even higher tax on alcohol, even if it ends up costing $12 for a can of beer. The drinkers will still buy booze. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger thinks so, and has included increased taxes on alcohol and tobacco in his budget proposal.

I think the rest of us should stop by the patios of local bars where smoking is allowed and give shout-outs to the folks who are drinking and smoking and paying a bigger share of our taxes.

And if we can't fully solve the state's $42 billion budget gap with more sin taxes, then let's go after the rich. We hate the way they flaunt their wealth anyway, so we should stick it to them. The perfect target would be the guy with the Porsche who drinks and smokes. Let's get him. It's for the public good.

The politicians would go along because sin taxes are the easiest ones to raise. In this era of everyone for themselves, let's make others pay extra -- just not the majority of us who consume state services that cost a lot of money.

And since we're deflecting responsibility in California, let's ask taxpayers in Des Moines and Milwaukee to help subsidize our excesses. Instead of fixing California's budget problems on our own, let's count on all that federal stimulus money headed for California to close the budget gap. Talk about painless. The money from the feds is free, right?

Yes, we're in the great state of California, where our idea of shared sacrifice is having others bear the pain while we wring our hands about how terrible everything has gotten.

No wonder state lawmakers have been in budget gridlock for so long. We tell them not to cut funding for education, parks and the poor, and, by the way, don't raise our taxes either, except on the sinners and the rich.

The Public Policy Institute of California just released a poll that said 85 percent of Californians support the governor's proposal to raise taxes on booze and 72 percent said they backed higher income taxes on California's wealthiest residents.

Raising taxes on drinkers and the rich was the most popular tax option, according to the poll. Far down the list of supporters was taxes that hit everyone. Just over half of those surveyed (52 percent) supported the governor's proposal to increases the state sales tax by 1.5 cents for three years.

Because the politicians are getting mixed messages from the public, lawmakers read them the way they want. Democrats say the public doesn't want program cuts so there must be big tax increases.

Republicans say the public doesn't want more taxes so there must be deeper cuts in services.

But the truth is that we're going to have both -- big cuts in programs and tax increases that we don't want.

Both options won't be good for the economy, but then we got ourselves into this mess by trying to have it all without paying for it. California lawmakers made the problem substantially worse by delaying a fix for so long.

Then you'll start hearing a lot of angry Californians complain. What about our free lunch? Isn't somebody else supposed to be picking up the tab?

Now state Controller John Chiang wants to issue IOUs to taxpayers in place of refund checks on their state income taxes. That will come as a shock to most taxpayers. Can't Chiang just hold up the refunds on smokers and drinkers?

Jim Boren is The Fresno Bee's editorial page editor. E-mail him at jboren@fresnobee.com.