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Tech Titans want richest Californians to pay for pandemic preparedness

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Gabe Bankman-Fried, a former Wall Street trader, raised $12 million from a cryptocurrency trading firm founded by his brother, Sam Bankman-Fried. Dustin Moskovitz, a billionaire who shared a room with Mark Zuckerberg in college and helped found Facebook in 2004, funds a nonprofit with his wife that has raised $6.5 million.

And Max Henderson, a startup investor and former Google executive, is using the money to campaign for a statewide ballot initiative that would tax California’s wealthiest residents and fund public health initiatives. , with the ambitious goal of preventing another pandemic from spreading across the country. .

These entrepreneurs have applied their technology and data expertise to covid-related philanthropic projects. They say the government needs to drastically increase its investments in the crumbling public health care system given California’s and the United States’ lack of preparedness for the covid-19 crisis.

The proposed tax would raise up to $15 billion over 10 years, according to a state government analysis of the measure, which organizers say is on course to qualify for the November ballot.

“We’ve spent billions of dollars responding to covid, but we’ve done very little to prevent the next pandemic,” Gabe Bankman-Fried said.

This year, Californians will decide on a host of health care initiatives and tax proposals. Voters’ support for the tax hike, however, appears to be mixed. In 2020, Californians rejected a measure that sought to raise some commercial property taxes, and taxpayer advocates argue opposition to higher taxes has intensified as gas, housing and other costs rise. increased.

The public health initiative, called the California Pandemic Early Detection and Prevention Act, would impose an additional tax “at the rate of 0.75% on the portion of a taxpayer’s taxable income” that exceeds $5 million. The tax would last 10 years, until 2032, and would generate between $500 million and $1.5 billion a year, according to a nonpartisan analysis by the Office of the Legislative Analyst.

The campaign had raised nearly $19 million by early April, according to organizers and state records. Organizers expect the measure to qualify for the November ballot as the campaign has garnered nearly all of the million signatures required. Signatures must be validated by the California Secretary of State.

If the measure is passed, half of the proceeds will fund an institute to detect and prevent new outbreaks, 25% will pay for school safety improvements and 25% will help rebuild local public health workforce and infrastructure.

“We are fortunate to have cutting-edge technology here to ensure that we never see these economic and school closures again,” Henderson said. “Our vision is to put the systems in place to prevent the next pandemic. It won’t happen federally, but California can lead.”

Critics say Californians are already overtaxed. And the public health initiative is unlikely to be the only proposal on the November ballot that would raise taxes for high-income earners. Another measure, which looks likely to make the rounds, would raise income taxes for residents who earn more than $2 million a year to fund electric vehicles and wildfire suppression efforts.

A University of California-Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll released on April 15 found that 64% of California voters believe that the state and federal taxes “that they and their families have to pay are too high,” an increase of 10 percentage points from six years ago. .

“Why are we even talking about raising taxes when we have a budget surplus of nearly $50 billion,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. “That’s exactly why we’re seeing major leaks out of California and why wealthier individuals like Elon Musk are leaving for states like Texas and Florida.”

As coronavirus cases have declined statewide and nationally, the economy has become a top priority among Californians.

According to a March survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, 35% of state residents said recent price increases had “caused severe financial hardship.” And many have expressed concern over rising housing costs and homelessness. At the same time, nearly 80% of Californians were optimistic that the worst of the coronavirus pandemic was “behind us,” according to the poll.

Patrick Kallerman, vice president of research for the Bay Area Council, which represents business interests, argued that higher taxes could drive high-income earners out of California and shrink the state’s tax base. “These record budget surpluses that California is experiencing are coming from the same higher income people who would see higher taxes, so we need to think long and hard about how to keep California’s golden goose,” said Kallerman. He noted that the Bay Area Council has not taken a position on the public health initiative.

But campaign organizers and supporters say the investments would make California more attractive to businesses and potential residents.

“California will be a global leader in this new area of ​​technology and serve as a model for the nation and the world while creating thousands of new high-paying jobs, generating millions of dollars in new tax revenue, and attracting talent and talent. private companies investment in the state,” reads the wording of the initiative.

The organization the measure would create — the California Institute for Pandemic Prevention — would distribute public health grants to researchers, institutions and scientists studying ways to reduce the transmission of dangerous pathogens. This could include investing in genomic sequencing – the science behind virus tracing that helped California researchers be the first to identify a case of the omicron variant in the United States.

The California Department of Public Health and the state’s 61 local public health agencies would also receive new tax revenue to hire more epidemiologists, nurses and other public health professionals to replace those who have resigned en masse during the covid pandemic. Revenue could also fund vaccination campaigns and contact tracing, data-sharing systems and public health labs – 11 of which have closed in California since 1999.

K-12 schools could use the funding to install air filtration and ventilation systems, ultraviolet disinfection equipment, touchless washroom facilities and other technologies.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s office declined to say whether it supported the initiative. After refusing to increase public health budgets in the first year of the pandemic, Newsom, a Democrat, last year proposed $300 million in new public funding per year for state public health departments. and premises. It has been approved and begins in the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Funders of the public health initiative have launched other pandemic-related efforts aimed at helping the government better respond to covid.

Gabe Bankman-Fried in 2020 founded Guarding Against Pandemics, which advocates at the state and federal levels for increased investment in public health. Early in the pandemic, Henderson helped launch Covid Act Now to distribute data on coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths to federal, state and local public health agencies.

If the initiative passes, it would provide the biggest injection of cash for the state’s public health system since its inception. Researchers and public health experts say this is essential as more deadly pandemic threats loom on the horizon.

“Is our public health system broken down? Yes, absolutely. Are these pandemic threats real? More than people realize,” said Dr. Stephen Luby, professor of medicine and infectious diseases at Stanford University. “We’re so globally connected now. This pandemic is a wake-up call.”

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an independent editorial service of the California Health Care Foundation.




This article was reprinted from khn.org with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health policy research organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.