This article originally ran on the California Progress Report.

You know that old saying, “Robbing Peter to pay Paul”? That’s what State government has been doing for years, and the Peter in this case is local government. To balance the state budget, the governor and Legislature regularly borrow, raid or otherwise redirect billions meant to be used by cities and counties.

A coalition of local elected officials, labor leaders, public transit advocates, transportation advocates and others recently began collecting signatures to qualify the “Local Taxpayer, Public Safety and Transportation Protection Act” for the November 2010 ballot. This measure will close the loopholes and prevent the State from ripping off local revenues — including gas taxes we pay at the pump that should go to public transit and badly needed transportation improvements.

Passing this measure is absolutely vital to protect the locally delivered services that improve our quality of life, provide for local police and fire departments–including 911 operators, help the neediest among us, and promote our local economies.

California’s cities, counties and special districts provide parks, libraries, after-school programs for at-risk youth, community health clinics, public hospitals, senior services, and welfare and social services for low-income families. Local and regional public-transit systems provide bus, rail and shuttle services that get families to work, school, medical appointments or the grocery store.

But these vital local services have taken a devastating hit in recent years, in part because of the sagging economy, but also due to state lawmakers raiding billions of dollars in local government funds year after year. In just the last budget cycle, Sacramento borrowed $2 billion in property taxes from local governments; took $2.05 billion in local redevelopment funds which are vital to providing affordable housing, jobs and economic growth in urban areas; and shifted $910 million in transit funding away from local transit agencies, forcing major service cutbacks and fair increases upon working families least able to afford it.

Importantly, this measure only protects EXISTING revenues that already are dedicated to local government, transportation and public- transit programs and services. It does not dedicate any new funding to these programs and does not take any funds away from state programs or services. In fact, it’s “revenue neutral” for the State.  A strong argument can even be made that the measure actually benefits the State financially.

For instance, the State recently paid $275 million in interest and issuance costs to securitize $1.9 billion of the $2 billion it borrowed from local governments under Prop. 1A in last year’s budget. That’s $275 million fewer dollars available for schools, children’s healthcare, or other State-funded programs.

What’s more, various courts have now ruled that previous raids of public transit and redevelopment funds were illegal, blowing multi-billion dollar holes in the State budget that will force deeper service cuts to State programs down the line.

Untangling the messy relationship between the State and local governments will also force an honest conversation in Sacramento about what revenues are needed to sustain adequate funding for schools, social services and other State programs.

Under the current system, the State simply dips into local government funds as a band-aid measure, masking the State’s true revenue challenges and pushing the fiscal problems further down the road.

There are a lot of discussions these days about “reform” in Sacramento that run the political and policy gamut. But almost everyone agrees that moving government closer to the people – where there’s more accountability and where essential services are delivered to the people – is the logical place to start.

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