As time goes by and initiative petition circulators buttonhole more and more Californians outside big box stores and shopping malls, it becomes increasingly obvious that all three state tax increase initiatives now in the works cannot pass.
If all go onto the ballot together this November, conceded Gov. Jerry Brown’s top adviser Steve Glazer the other day, it would amount to a “circular firing squad.” Few voters, he meant, would vote for all three, even among those who might be sympathetic to one. All would likely lose.
Brown has known this from the day last fall when he began pushing for a tax increase via the ballot-measure route after giving up on winning the handful of Republican legislative votes needed to get one without going directly to the voters.
So he’s campaigned to get sponsors of the other measures to step aside and open the way for his plan, which would raise income tax rates for any individual making $250,000 or more and for joint filers with adjusted gross incomes topping $500,000. It would also increase sales taxes by half a percent for four years. Just under half the $5.5 billion to $6.9 billion raised annually would go to elementary and high schools and community colleges.
Brown is convinced, as he told the state Democratic Party convention last month in San Diego, that “We’ve got to pass a tax measure.” Without one, he argues, fire and police departments will be undermanned, schools will suffer in many ways, more state parks will close, more convicts will be put back on the streets – in short, essential services will suffer, disastrously so for some, including the infirm elderly who have already lost much of the day care that often keeps them out of expensive, constrictive nursing homes.
But he knows it won’t be easy to pass any tax increase proposal, even with a thoroughly Democratic electorate and even though voters in many locales often pass their own tax increases for schools and city or county projects.
Explains George Runner, former state senator and current member of the state Board of Equalization, one of the few Republicans in anything resembling a major California office, “We’ve lost faith in politicians and government programs. We’ve been promised the moon time and again but end up with very little to show for our significant tax investments.”
Example A of this might be the pending high speed rail project, which promised to send bullet trains zipping between major California cities, but so far has accomplished little besides seeing its announced price tag triple. Brown backs the project, saying changes in its plan will lower the price considerably, but there’s little doubt it has damaged the public’s esteem of government programs.
So it’s next to impossible for the three tax increase proposals now in the works all to pass. Some pundits guess that two of them – one sponsored by the California Nurses Association and the California Federation of Teachers, the other mostly funded by Pasadena civil rights attorney Molly Munger, whose father is a partner of investor Warren Buffett – will merge.
But two tax increases have little more chance of passage than three. For an increase to have any chance, sponsors will have to settle on one ballot presence, and even then there will be no guarantees.
Brown has acted as if it’s inevitable that backers of the other measures will accede to him and end up backing his plan. But so far, they have not. Munger has put $800,000 of her own money into gathering signatures for her plan, which calls for tax rates to rise for filers with as little income as $17,346. She says she’ll spent all it takes, no limit. That one would produce just over $10 billion in new revenue, with $3 billion going to deficit reduction for the first four years, and the rest to education and early childhood programs.
Meanwhile, the nurses and the teachers’ federation are pushing hard for their plan, giving more than half its approximately $5 billion take from raised taxes on million-dollar-plus incomes to schools and the rest to counties for senior programs, children’s programs, health services for the disabled, road maintenance and police and fire departments.
Maybe it’s time for Brown and the other initiative sponsors to combine their measures; maybe that’s ongoing quietly already. For sure, there have been contacts and there are elements of similarity between all three plans.
Rather than Brown expecting the other sponsors to abandon their efforts and simply sign onto his, it may be more realistic for him to adjust some of his proposal to fit into a compromise version of the others.
It’s hard to predict who wins if this becomes a stark contest of wills. But it’s easy to see who loses if Brown doesn’t do some conceding: All three measures and their sponsors, plus anyone who cares about the public services all three aim to preserve and improve.