Must act decisively and fast to save California

Opinion Editorial by Jim Wunderman
Published in the Contra Costa Times, Oakland Tribune, San Mateo County Times & Tri-Valley Herald

As 2009 closes, the opinion of most Californians is “good riddance.” The year ends with record unemployment figures of 12.5 percent, 25 percent higher than the national average. Other large states with diverse economies like New York and Texas have unemployment rates below average. The year also closes with another record budget deficit looming and more cuts to education and other vital services on the way.

Economists predict a slow recovery for the nation’s economy in 2010, but what about California? Will we lead the nation out of this recession as we have done so many times in the past?

I believe we can. California still has the best and brightest workforce in the world, we still lead the world in innovation, venture capital investment and new technologies. If any place can turn this economy around, it is California.

Unfortunately, it is also true to say that if anywhere in the world, despite its embarrassment of riches, can make things worse, it is California.

A recent national survey of CEOs ranked California the worst state in the nation to do business. The nonpartisan Tax Foundation ranks California 48th in the Business Tax Climate index. A 2009 report commissioned by the governor, titled “Cost of State Regulations on California Small Businesses” totals the cost of regulation to the state at almost half a trillion dollars. This cost amounts to 3.8 million lost jobs, one-tenth the state’s population.

Businesses in California are overtaxed, overregulated and underappreciated, which is why so many are moving to other states. If we are to emerge from our current fiscal mess, a mess that is costing us our position as an economic leader in the country and the world, we must make policy changes to encourage new investment and job creation in California.

Before we step forward, let’s start by looking back and undoing shortsighted policy decisions that have badly damaged California’s economy. This is my wish list for California’s businesses in 2010.

In 1999, California scrapped the 40-hour federal standard for payment of overtime, and instead forces employers to pay overtime to employees once they have exceeded eight hours in any given day, even if they work less than 40 hours a week. This law, combined with California’s incredibly rigid lunch-hour rule, makes California noncompetitive. Employers and employees need more flexibility and less mandates from Sacramento. We need to repeal AB 60, the eight hour day law, and AB 1711, the mandatory lunch law.

It is impossible to total the California Environmental Quality Act’s (CEQA) cost to business, because it is so pervasive. One thing is certain: It is a massive anchor on California’s economy. The U.S. already has stringent environmental protections in the National Environmental Protection Act; California has set the bar much higher in CEQA and forces our businesses through lengthy and costly delays. We need to reform CEQA to speed up the review process and give more certainty to business while maintaining our environmental protections.

California has the highest sales tax in the nation and is one of just four states in the nation that does not allow a sales tax exemption for the purchase of machinery used in manufacturing and telecommunications. This puts California at a huge competitive disadvantage and cost us thousands of jobs since the exemption sunsetted in 2004. We need to address our overall taxation structure and reinstate the 6 percent Manufacturer Investment Credit that helped pull California out of the last recession.

We can protect our environment, workers and businesses and prosper again, but we must act decisively and act fast.

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