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From the Cheap Seats: Desperation in Sacramento

One of California’s biggest political battles in years is underway, and if the Democrats in Sacramento have their way, voters will be denied a say in the outcome. On Sept. 26, they applied to the California Supreme Court for a writ to keep an already-qualified voter initiative off the November 2024 ballot.

Doing so would overcome more than 1 million valid signatures that were gathered to support the measure.

The target of this effort is a voter initiative known as the Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act, a constitutional amendment that would prohibit any increase in taxes and government fees without the approval of the voters.

The Dems’ move hints at desperation in Sacramento, evincing a fear that the voters will put an effective leash on taxing and spending in state government.

Ostensibly advanced in the names of the California Legislature, governor and an individual “elector,” it’s clearly a partisan maneuver. According to Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner’s office, no vote for this was taken in the Legislature. 

It’s not law, just politics. 

The lead attorney opposing the initiative is Richard R. Rios of the Sacramento-based firm Olson Remcho, well-known as an agent of the Democratic Party. Their clients include “the Governor, the Speaker of the Assembly, the Senate President pro Tempore, the California Democratic Party, dozens of labor organizations, and members of the California Congressional Delegation,” according to the firm’s website. 

Rios is also the attorney who represented state Sen. Catherine Blakespear in the matter of Walsh v. Blakespear, a lawsuit arising out of her blocking and censoring of public comment on social media and her subsequent breach of a related settlement agreement.

According to Rios’ brief, the proposed amendment is an “unlawful attempt to revise the Constitution.” His argument makes a distinction between an “amendment” and a “revision,” the latter proposing “far reaching changes in the nature of our governmental plan.” The amendment would also impact the executive branch by restricting its power to increase fees and charges.

Defending the initiative is Sacramento attorney Thomas W. Hiltachk, acting for Californians for Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability, which has the backing of the California Business Roundtable and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, among others. 

Hiltachk’s reply brief asks for summary denial of the writ, arguing firstly that the Dems “cannot overcome this Court’s long-standing rule against removing a duly qualified initiative measure from the ballot absent a clear and unquestionable showing of invalidity.”

He debunks Rios’ “revision” argument, pointing out that Proposition 13 encountered much the same objection, yet the government in California managed to adapt after voters approved it.

A notable feature of Rios’ argument is its reliance on obscure, judge-made law, in contrast to the plain language of the Constitution: “The electors [i.e., the voters] may amend the Constitution by initiative.” 

Speculating here on the outcome would be imprudent: Legal argument can be contorted to favor most any result, and the Supreme Court, with only one Republican-appointed justice, may accept Rios’ pitch.

This move opens another front in the fight over taxing and spending. Revenues are insufficient to the Legislature’s unremitting appetite.  

Pushing back, critics point to incompetent administration, wasted billions and Sacramento’s harmful intrusion into the private sector and local government.  Voters may be ready to assign blame for this problem to the Democrats. 

And it is a problem. The tax and spending burden is driving residents and businesses away. California has the highest income tax rates in the nation, offset somewhat by Prop 13’s limits on property taxes. Overall, California ranks near the bottom (48th) in the State Business Tax Climate Index, according to the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan tax policy research center.  

State revenues, which are very dependent on capital gain taxes from the (now faltering) stock market, are under pressure. What was a substantial surplus in the state budget in 2022 has swung sharply negative. 

Likely the federal government, with fiscal problems of its own, will not come to California’s rescue. But legislators, instead of looking for ways to cut unsustainable spending, have been eyeing increases for both taxes and fees. 

A predictable result is afflicting the Golden State – many taxpayers are leaving.  Outmigration jumped 135% from 2019 to 2022, the largest in the nation, benefiting lower-tax states. 

Many who left were high-income, contributing a disproportionate share of taxes. Their departure will make it tougher for those who remain.

Democrats have enjoyed a trifecta in state government since 2011, now with super-majorities in both the State Senate and the Assembly.  They are in a position to pursue their agenda nearly without restraint.  But California is becoming too expensive for working families, for family businesses, and for high-end earners. 

Given Democrat dominance of state government, their tax-and-spend formula gives legislators nearly unchecked power at the expense of the people. There must be a limit to that power. If things don’t change, the people will wither away.  

The time is right for the Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act, a worthy challenge to the status quo. 

The question should be put to a vote, not decided in court. Let’s hope our Supreme Court reasserts the most basic premise of our Constitution — all political power is inherent in the people. 

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