At the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (HJTA), we have seen Proposition 13 blamed for just about everything. A national publication blamed the tax limiting measure for the not guilty verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, while a high school physical education coach wrote in a community paper that the loss of shots by his track and field team was due to the lack of money to cut the grass, and this, of course, was due to Proposition 13.
Now we’re seeing attacks on HJTA sponsored Proposition 218, the Right to Vote on Taxes Act, which makes the taxing process more democratic by allowing voters to decide on local tax increases and to assure property owners that they would have a meaningful say on new assessments, fees and charges. One such attack was a recent opinion piece, calling for the repeal of Proposition 218, because it robs voters of their “democratic power.”
This critic argued that, because Proposition 218 guarantees the voters’ right to approve or reject new taxes, it prevents politicians from matching revenue to their spending, “…local officials can give big pensions to cops, but don’t have the power to raise taxes to pay for those pensions.”
But this begs the obvious question: if officials are going to provide benefits to government employees that are unsustainable, wouldn’t it make more sense to limit spending rather than having an open season on taxpayers who are already among the most taxed in all 50 states?
Pundits who call for the repeal of Prop 218 are naïve. They see the state of our political environment as if it were from a sanitized civics textbook or perhaps like Disneyland, a well ordered theme park where fantasies can be made to come true.
The Magic Kingdom may seem genteel, filled with reasonable and well behaved people, when viewed from a tower in the Sleeping Beauty Castle, but outside the park in Realville, a battle is raging between those who work hard to support themselves and their families and those who believe politics is an extension of a grand spoils system where taxes are the preferred weapon to extract ever more money from those who earn it.
California politics is a bare knuckles contest where, by far, the largest and most powerful competitors are the government employee unions. Because of their ability to turn out members to vote for the union label and their ability to use mandatory union dues for any political purpose, they are able to elect a majority to the Legislature, a majority that owes them allegiance. At the local level, they are just as influential, controlling a majority of votes on many city councils.
And the unions do not adhere to Marquis of Queensbury rules. In San Diego they sent out goon squads to intimidate signature gatherers for a reasonable ballot measure to reform pensions. And in Costa Mesa, they went so far as to hire private detectives to follow city council members, who refused to roll over under union pressure, in an effort to find incriminating information about them.
The result of this union power is evidenced by the recent bankruptcies of cities like Stockton and San Bernardino, where union-beholden council members voted increases in pay and benefits that were unsustainable.
Ironically, had officials been able to raise taxes without going to voters as required by Propositions 13 and 218, the communities would be worse off because California taxpayers and businesses have learned that they can vote with their feet by fleeing to more tax friendly communities or states. Jurisdictions which lose their tax payers and are left with nothing but tax receivers don’t do very well.
In the real world of California politics, Propositions 13 and 218 are important checks against a corrupt political establishment that is beholden to special interests. So let’s not pretend that this is Fantasyland. The only thing that California politics has in common with Disneyland is that most of the laws enacted that hurt taxpayers are downright goofy.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.