That Tax Plan: Can’t We Do Better Than The Status Quo?
By Peter Schrag
The convoluted jockeying among the proponents of California’s various ballot-box tax measures and the incessant lip flapping about which has the best chance with voters must make citizens of any normal democracy think we’re nuts. Which has the best shot? The Jerry Brown version (of a four-year increase in sales tax rates and five years in upper-bracket marginal income tax rates) vs. the millionaires’ tax increase proposed by the California Federation of Teachers (for schools) vs. millionaire lawyer Molly Munger’s progressively-scaled 12-year across-the-board income tax increase? What screwy system brought us to this?
Brown and the CFT have now “compromised” on a version not very different from Brown’s original. That brings the number of potential tax measures on the November ballot down to two.
People like Tony Quinn, one of the few California Republicans who still holds a slim claim as a reasonable thinker, is already writing it off as a costly loser. One has to hope it’s not: without it the chances of turning things around will be even slimmer.
Brown’s plan will stop the plunge in California’s fiscal condition -- avert yet another round of budget cuts to California public services. But it does little to change the system or promise a brighter future.Yes, we badly need more revenue. But the real question is why we ever locked ourselves into this insane system in the first place. In other modern democracies, governments and the parliaments that elect them set tax rates by majority vote; something similar is true in 34 of our states, with the added check of a gubernatorial
When voters in those 34 states object, they can always kick the rascalsout. Does anyone claim that the people of Kansas or Minnesota or Vermont or Massachusetts or Indiana suffer from a state government that’s more ineffective or dysfunctional than the people of California?
Nearly all of the 16 states that require some sort of super-majority vote – some only for property or corporate tax increases – are in the South and in the initiative states of the West.
Most of them adopted their super-majority requirements after California, in passing Proposition 13, wrote its own two-thirds requirement into the state constitution. Does anyone claim Arkansas, Mississippi or Oklahoma as an exemplarof good government?
Proposition 13 was never sold as a device for tying state government into knots. It was pushed – and voted for – as relief for escalating residential property taxes. It was not sold as a big property tax break for corporations or as a device for putting a growing share of the property tax burden on homeowners.
It was not sold as a device to make the playing field between old property owners and new ones, residential and commercial, ever less level. It was not advertised as a way of shifting the burden -- in taxes, in education, in home prices-- from the old to the young, from long-time residents to newcomers, a growing percentage of them Latinos and Asians.
But it’s done all those things, and maybe was really intended to do the mall along. For the thirty-plus years since Proposition 13 started the march of the plebiscites in California, some of them liberal, most regressive – spending limits,term limits, three-strikes sentencing laws, voter initiatives denying the children of illegal immigrants the right to public education – our government has become increasingly dysfunctional, and with every failure we’ve had demands for yet more ballot measures and quick fixes.
The jockeying in the past months over the tax measures is yet another twist in that road, an accommodation to the craziness of our political system and our political culture, not anything close to an attempt to confront and change them. At his inauguration last year, Jerry Brown made encouraging noises about California’s greatness – even sounded at moments as if he’d gotten past the resentments against his father’s politics and grand programs that marked Junior’s first terms as governor.
But as he got ever deeper into the quagmire of California’s contemporary politics – discovered that today’s Republicans aren’t remotely like those in government during his last tenure in Sacramento, something he should have known before he arrived – he’s seemed ever more like the era-of-limits, small-is- beautiful 1978 model Jerry Brown. Maybe austerity was always too much in his blood. Could he have spent more of the last year launching a public campaign for greatness and a restoration of real democracy, not the convoluted mess we have now – could he still? Chances are slim that it could have succeeded, certainly not in the short run.
Still he might try to offer a vision of greatness for the future: a public college and university system that’s again the envy of the world; grand parks; humane social services and great schools preparing six million students of all races and backgrounds for excellence in the world of the 21st century. Were he even to try he might yet leave a legacy both for himself and his father more worthy than just the mincy accommodation of a tax increase that, even if successful, would accomplish little more than maintenance of the status quo.
Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His newest book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale. View his past work on California Progress Report here.