The Shape of Water Tax

California’s rural residents and coastal elites have at least one thing in common: they’re both drinking bottled water.  A McClatchy analysis of data compiled from the State Water Resource Control Board estimates that 360,000 Californians – mostly in inland areas — are served water from unsafe water systems.  These include pollutants such as nitrates, arsenic, and uranium.

The Sacramento Bee reported that Lanare resident Isabel Solorio has had water issues since she and her husband moved to the small farming community south of Fresno 20 years ago. The water smelled like rotten eggs and had a yellowish color, she said.  NBC 7 in San Diego found that lead was discovered in at least three schools in low-income areas of the county.

In a state mythically known for the lifestyles of the rich and famous, in many parts of California, contaminated drinking water – common in poor, war-torn countries — is something residents have come to expect.  According to the McClatchy analysis, about 6 million Californians have been served water that did not meet state safety standards at some point since 2012.  That’s also the year that then-Gov. Jerry Brown officially made safe water a human right.

Who knew that declaring something a human right wouldn’t fix the problem?

Brown’s next move was to propose the first tax on water in American history.  He hoped to raise $140 million by taxing households about $11.40 a year and businesses about $10 a month. It ultimately failed to pass. Gov. Newsom, now carrying the baton, has proposed in his first budget a statewide tax to create a fund that would fix wells and treatment systems in the affected communities. It’s light on detail, but it’s expected to look a lot like his predecessor’s plan.

We don’t agree that safe drinking water is a right, but if there was ever a role for state government, it’s assuring safe water for all residents. It’s appalling that California, which has run surpluses in the last several years ($21.4 billion this year), has failed to fix this decades-long problem.

Steve Greenhut of the R Street Institute said it best: “It is indicative of the way that government operates. First, it fails spectacularly in its fundamental responsibilities. Then it makes bold declarations that do nothing to fix a problem of its own making. Then it increases taxes to do the things that it already has money to do. The next step is obvious, too. It will collect the new revenues and the problem will continue unabated. One thing seems likely: these Central Valley residents will still be suffering from undrinkable water decades from now.”

Rowena Itchon is senior vice president of the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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