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A proposed ballot initiative would make passing new taxes and increasing fees all but impossible. Stock image
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Elias: Forces align over anti-tax measure

Seldom in California’s almost 180-year history as a state have so many major forces aligned themselves so solidly against a ballot initiative as are lined up today against something called the “Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act.”

This initiative measure qualified long ago (last February) for a November vote, but don’t be utterly shocked if you never encounter it on a ballot. 

If it’s there in November, you’ll also be seeing a dueling measure known so far only as Assembly Constitutional Amendment (ACA) 13, a proposed law designed to counter every part of the Taxpayer Protection Act.

Neither of these measures has yet been assigned a proposition number, nor has either gotten an official title or summary from state Attorney General Rob Bonta. 

In fact, if Bonta were being completely ethical, he would recuse himself from that task and find someone else to write the official title and summary.

That’s because Bonta is aligned with Gov. Gavin Newsom in trying to get the anti-tax initiative off the ballot before anyone can vote on it. 

They filed an emergency appeal last September asking the California Supreme Court to remove it from voter consideration, claiming it would unlawfully revise the state Constitution and cripple government functions at both the state and local levels.

It’s not merely the governor and attorney general who now line up against this measure. There’s also the state Legislature, which easily passed ACA 13, which as yet has no other formal name.

There there’s the League of California Cities and, more individually, the mayors of all California’s largest cities.

What does this measure do to arouse such keen opposition? 

Simply put, it would make passing new taxes and increasing fees (like those for building permits or business licenses) all but impossible by forcing popular votes on every measure aiming to raise money for governments at all levels short of the federal.

Right now, it takes a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to pass any tax increase. That may seem tough to get, but has been a fairly simple task lately, in an era of massive Democratic majorities in both houses of the Legislature.

Formerly, it took a two-thirds margin among local voters to increase or create taxes for schools, streets or most other municipal functions. 

This margin was enshrined in the 1978 Proposition 13, better known for setting property tax rates at 1% per year of the most recent sales price on any property, residential or commercial.

But advocates of more money for public schools used later statewide initiatives requiring only simple majority votes to reset approval levels for many local school tax increases at 55% of all votes, rather than the former two-thirds.

The Taxpayer Protection measure proposes to turn back the clock on this and make all taxes and fees subject to two-thirds majority popular votes. 

This would be true even for state tax hikes, which formerly needed only legislative votes. 

Under the Taxpayer Protection proposition, state taxes could not rise without approval of a supermajority of state voters.

Rarely has anyone attempted to put the clamps on government’s ability to raise money, either to cope with inflation or for new projects, as completely as this measure, sponsored by the California Business Roundtable (made up of many wealthy corporations) and backed by conservative, anti-tax outfits like the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

Jon Coupal, president of the Jarvis group (named for the co-author of Proposition 13) wrote in November that the effort to remove the Taxpayer Protection Act from the ballot is an “attack on direct democracy.”

Coupal said politicians like Newsom are essentially saying, “Shut up, you deplorable peasants. Let us, the expert politicians, tell you how much we need and how to spend it.”

All of which makes this a major battle even at this early date, between governments at many levels and California’s biggest businesses, which do not want to be taxed any more than now. 

And if the Taxpayer Protection measure stays on the ballot, what ensues might be the most bitter initiative battle since Proposition 13 won with a two-thirds majority in 1978.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected]. 

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