LETTER FROM WASHINGTON | DANA WILKIE
Tax wise, it's tough out west

March 27, 2006

WASHINGTON – When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger came back here last month to “collectinate,” we heard again that California gets from Washington a paltry 79 cents for each dollar it sends to the nation's capital.

We thought we had the whole, sad California-doesn't-get-its-fair-share picture. But we didn't. Because along came the Tax Foundation this month with more details than we wanted to know about the sorry state we're in.

The foundation, a nonpartisan group that monitors government fiscal policies, reports that in 1994, California got a whole 98 cents back for every dollar it sent to Washington. In 2004, it got this wretched 79 cents. About a decade ago, the Golden State ranked No. 32 in the nation in terms of how much money Washington returned. Now it's No. 43.

Meanwhile, California ranks No. 9 when it comes to residents' federal income tax burden – with each Californian having to fork over, on average, about $3,187 a year to Uncle Sam out here on the Potomac.

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Wouldn't it be nicer to owe less than half that, as they do in one state where the per-person federal income tax comes to $1,508 a year?

But who wants to live in West Virginia?

No need to let this bit of tax trivia get you down – yet – because we're not done with the bad news.

From the Public Policy Institute of California comes “Time to Work,” an analysis of how California commuting trends have changed over the years. The report, released in February, concludes that the average San Diegan in 2004 spent just under 26 minutes getting to work, a full minute longer than in 2000.

Of course, many San Diegans recognize their commutes are a lot longer than that, so it's prudent to point out that the report represents average commute times across the entire county.

SOMETHING GOOD ABOUT FRESNO

Just thank your lucky stars you don't live in the county of San Joaquin, where commute times jumped by 21 percent in those four years, from 26 minutes to nearly 32 minutes. Or the county of Contra Costa, where the average commute time was 32.2 minutes. It's entirely understandable to feel envious about those who live in a place where commuters spend only about 20 minutes on the road.

But who wants to live in Fresno?

Despite all those mass-transit incentives – the new rail lines, the increased routes, the employer subsidies – driving alone remains “by far the most popular mode of travel to work,” the report concludes, with nearly three in four Californians driving solo to the office.

Who are these villains, spewing pollutants into our air and clogging our roads?

The more highly educated and the older you are, the more likely it is you.

If you live in a detached, single-family house, or a place built in the past decade, then you're more likely to drive to work alone than those who live in apartments or places built in the 1960s.

Earn more than $150,000 a year? About 82 percent of you folks are driving to work alone. Probably because you can afford the parking and have a carload of electronic gadgets to amuse you during traffic backups.

And if you're African-American, between 35 and 54 years old, earning more than $80,000 a year and married – without children and with a nonworking spouse – you're likely to be one of those lucky dogs whose daily commute is 45 minutes or longer.

CAR POOLERS GET BOGGED DOWN

Now about the car poolers: You're environmental do-gooders, that's for sure, but depending on how many people pile into the vehicle, it could be slow-going to the office. If you drive with just one buddy each morning, your commute takes about as long as the lone driver's, somewhere in the 23-to 25-minute range. Add a third person, and you're pushing past half an hour. A fourth car pooler? You're getting close to 40 minutes.

But really – who wants to put up with such a press of humanity so early in the morning?

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

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