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Driving back from Oxnard this past Sunday, I passed a large field where dozens of Hispanic workers were busy picking vegetables on that cold, rainy Presidents Day weekend.

It looked miserable – wet, windy, chilly, yet out there they were, laboring along, part of a vast supply chain that brings you and me healthy, fresh vegetables to our table at prices we can afford – and prices to which we’re accustomed.

I wondered just how much farmers would have to pay to get you or me or our kids or just about anyone else to go out there to do back-breaking work on a cold, rainy holiday weekend.

These pickers are likely working for $10 an hour or less. They’re likely immigrants from a farm labor broker, moving from farm to farm as the harvest schedules dictate.

What will it take when our immigration authorities “crack down” and cut these folks out of our food chain? Then what will the farmers have to pay?  $15 an hour? $20 per hour? Are there even enough fit, warm bodies to harvest all our food in California once the “illegal aliens” are sent back home? Farmers are worried – and so should you be.

Labor represents about 15 percent of the cost of most foods. If farmers are able to find local, non-immigrant labor, you can count on a good, solid 25 percent rise in produce prices after all markups get factored in.

Worse, prices could soar should farmers face inadequate labor and shortages hit the market. Imagine – you’re paying double while produce rots in the fields because heavy handed, ill-considered immigration policies mandated we “get tough on immigrants” – even when these pickers are the folks feeding us and not the criminals such toughness seeks to get.

We should be careful what we wish for when we wish for blanket expulsions of vast quantities of hard workers in our food chains.

Another second thought for this Wednesday: The Signal has been reporting heavily on the upcoming Measure H – the “homeless initiative” intended to raise sales taxes by a quarter of a cent and thus generating $350 million per year, for 10 years, to be distributed through 21 separate services through roughly 5,000 square miles of L.A. County.

Various estimates have been offered by various sources on the cost of this tax, ranging from a handful of lattes a year for an individual to nearer $80 a year for a typical Santa Clarita Valley household. Sounds cheap and reasonable and why shouldn’t everyone be able to afford it?

Well, it’s not so easy. No one has yet spoken of the impact on local businesses. Businesses, remember, also pay sales tax on all sorts of things.

Contractors and builders pay sales tax on all materials going into your homes, parks and structures. Many firms, perhaps over 100 in the SCV alone, purchase 10 million, 20 million and more of taxable goods in the course of their operations.

Twenty million in purchases equates to an additional $50,000 in tax burden suddenly pressed on those who employee you and me. Who pays these costs?

You pay these costs. Everything gets marked up and passed along through many steps in business processes. Buying a new home? Expect Measure H to raise the price of your home $1,000-$2,000. Buying a new car? Toss in another $75 or more. On it goes while our firms get weighed down with one more giant chunk of cost.

There’s no free lunch, and Measure H will be one more straw to break local backs. Sooner or later the cost becomes too much and firms move on.

We know Measure H calls for raising taxes before backers even know exactly where and how the money will be spent. “Tax now, figure out later.”

That’s not a good plan for cost-effective management of public funds, and local businesses find Measure H a bitter pill as they shoulder the greatest portion of these costs with no assurances of benefit back to our local community.

Perhaps one day our homeless will be trained to pick the produce our federal government would have lay wasted and unpicked on farms near and far. It could happen, and that would be grand to see work out.

However, such visions seemed far-fetched as I drove past those rainy Oxnard farms with dozens of migrant workers bent over in the cold, biting rain.

Hook or crook, it looks like we should all buckle down for increased costs ahead. Whether it’s produce or taxes, your government is poised to lighten your pocketbook for reasons not fully considered by those picking your pockets.

Gary Horton is a Santa Clarita resident. “Full Speed to Port!” appears Wednesdays in The Signal.

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  • Brian Baker

    One of those rare times, Gary, when you and I actually agree on something: No on Measure H.

  • Jim de Bree

    Another excellent column. The estimates of the amount of sales tax actually paid per person are incredibly understated. You proved that point very well.

  • Gil Mertz

    It’s a dilly of a pickle, Gary. Do we demand that illegal workers become legal or are we content to see them exploited to keep the price of our food down?

  • Ron Bischof

    Your column touches on one of the reasons why illegal immigrant labor is part of the U.S. economy, Gary. Enforcement of our immigration laws will have an effect. But there are other options beyond the previous selective enforcement.

    Before immigration from Mexico was politicized, the U.S. had a Bracero Program from 1942 – 1964. This policy allowed migrant farm workers to temporarily reside in the country during the harvest season and then return home.

    Our immigration policies will require reform via legislation to realign with national priorities.

    Kudos for pointing out the hidden costs in the sales tax increase proposed in Measure H. The cost projections relayed by proponents are as non-rigorous as the plans to spend the funds to assist the homeless.

    No on Measure H.

  • Gil Mertz

    Serious question. Could part of the solution be through our prison system? Could private owners pay the prison for field workers? It’s not busting rocks on a chain gang but could something like that work?

    • Brian Baker

      It’s certainly been done in the past, in many venues. The proverbial “chain gang”.

      • Gil Mertz

        Wouldn’t this address Gary’s concerns, make productive use of those serving time, and address illegal immigration? Win – win – win?

        • Brian Baker

          I think it has a lot of merit. Why not?

          • Gil Mertz

            Makes too much sense. It must be more complicated and costly to have traction by our elected officials.

          • charles maurice detallyrand

            Or perhaps a system whereby the state is able to arrest people and serve them as a commodity to private interests for free labor in exchange for payment is one so problematic and rife with moral and ethical concerns that those with an eye for limited government, free markets, and just basic common decency long ago decided against it.

            Ooh since all the immigrants crossed the border illegally to begin with and since they broke the law why not just imprison them instead of deporting them and have them work the fields…win win win.

            Maybe those who work hard and do a good job and have good behavior, maybe we can provide them some sort of incentive and reward in the form of a reduced sentence. Like the harder they work the sooner they could be released…work will make them free.

            Since conservatives love to privatize nearly every government service aside from the police and military (well not even the military anymore) and have loved privatizing prisons there certainly would never ever be any conflicts of interests that could arise from such a situation, nope not at all. We all know when there were chain gangs in the past there weren’t any cases of corruption or abuse even when the prisons were state run right..

    • charles maurice detallyrand

      Can you honestly not see anything wrong with this proposal?

      • Gil Mertz

        Please Charlies, enlighten us.